And amid continuing reluctance by other countries to send their troops to assist the US-led occupation, Washington has activated 10,000 Army National Guard troops and put 5000 more Army Guard soldiers on alert for probable duty in Iraq. 

Paul Bremer said on Friday precisely 19 al-Qaida members were in US custody in Iraq, Reuters reported. He told reporters in Washington he did not have the nationalities of the al-Qaida suspects.

But he said a total of 248 foreigners were being held, among them 123 Syrians and a large number of both Iranians and Yemenis.

"That's been a matter that has come out in their interrogations or in their documents," he responded when pressed on how he knew the 19 prisoners in question were members of al-Qaida, the group accused of the September 2001 attacks on the US.

Washington has said foreign fighters moving into Iraq to oppose US-led occupation forces have become a major "terrorist" problem. But the US has not provided any evidence that al-Qaida is present in Iraq.

Syria accused

The United States has accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to infiltrate into neighbouring Iraq, a charge that Damascus has repeatedly denied.

US troops in Iraq. Thousands of
reservists are due to join them

Bremer said the 123 Syrians among the 248 detained foreign fighters, formed the largest non-Iraqi contingent.

"I think ... the next two countries are Iran and Yemen," he said.

He said he did not know if any of the 19 al-Qaida suspects were members of the Ansar al-Islam group in Iraq.

US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration have previously said the two groups were closely linked.

Pressure

Aljazeera’s correspondent in Baghdad, Jawad al-Umari, says Bremer’s announcement is an attempt to put pressure on the countries he mentioned, such as Syria and Iran.

“His announcement may also be considered as a call for many countries to send troops to Iraq, as US forces are facing continuous attacks there,” he added.

Syria and Iran have been blamed
for letting fighters cross into Iraq

The US blames Iraqi supporters of former President Saddam Hussein for daily attacks on its troops.

But the Bush administration also says foreign Arab fighters are moving into Iraq, making it a primary front in its so-called War on Terrorism.

Critics of White House policy on Iraq, however, say the US occupation itself has provided the reason why foreigners may be going there to fight.

Part-time soldiers

With other countries rejecting George Bush's plea for help in controlling Iraq, the US activated 10,000 National Guard troops for service in Iraq and put 5000 others on alert on Friday.

The 30th Infantry Brigade, from North Carolina, and the 39th Infantry Brigade, from Arkansas, each with 5000 soldiers, were ordered to join the active duty force on 1 and 12 October respectively, Reuters reported. 

They will undergo about three months of training before going to Iraq early next year for 12 months.

The Army also put the 5000-member 81st National Guard Brigade from Washington state on notice for active duty in Iraq.

The part-time soldiers from North Carolina and Arkansas had been alerted earlier about the likelihood of duty in Iraq, where the United States already has 130,000 troops.

There are two multinational divisions in Iraq, each led by Britain and Poland, and the US has been calling for other countries to help form a third multinational division.