WASHINGTON -- U.S. forces in Iraq are holding 19 suspected members of the al-Qaida terrorist network, the American civilian administrator said Friday.
The suspected al-Qaida members are among 248 non-Iraqi fighters being held by the Americans in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer said in a Pentagon news conference.
Bremer said authorities determined the suspects' al-Qaida links through interrogations and documents the suspects were carrying. He said he did not know what countries they came from.
The largest number of foreign fighters -- 123 of the 248 -- came from Syria, Bremer said. The next-highest numbers came from Iran and Yemen, he said, adding he did not have precise figures for those countries.
The flow of terrorist fighters into Iraq is the biggest obstacle to the peaceful reconstruction of the country, Bremer said. The fighting between anti-American elements and U.S. forces hasn't hampered the reconstruction effort so far, though, he said.
Reconstruction of Iraq is critical to the global war on terrorism, he added.
"We don't want Iraq to become a breeding ground for terrorism in the future," Bremer said.
Most of the foreign fighters are coming into Iraq via "ratlines" from Syria, he said.
Bremer and other Bush administration officials have repeatedly accused Syria of being an obstacle in the Iraq conflict, first by allowing shipments of military goods to Saddam Hussein before and during the war and now by allowing terrorists to cross the same border.
Syrian officials deny interfering with U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Some terrorists are members of Ansar al-Islam, a militant group linked to al-Qaida whose base in northern Iraq was wiped out by coalition forces early in the war, Bremer indicated.
Ansar has regrouped and re-entered Iraq with perhaps several hundred members, he said.
"They're a very dangerous group," he said.
Bremer spent most of this week testifying in Congress in favor of President Bush's $87 billion request for spending on Iraq. About $20 billion of that request would pay for reconstruction projects overseen by Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, the civilian administration in Iraq.
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Coalition Provisional Authority: http://www.cpa-iraq.org