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Rumsfeld warns Syria on Iraq

by Matt Kelley    AP

WASHINGTON (March 28) - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned Syria on Friday to stop sending military equipment to Iraqi forces, a charge that Mideast nation called ''absolutely unfounded.''

Rumsfeld said he had ''information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night vision goggles.''

''We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments,'' he told a Pentagon press conference. He didn't say what the other equipment was, and several senior Defense Department officials said they didn't know.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthaine Shaban rejected Rumsfeld's statement as ''unfounded and irresponsible.''

''He only brings problems for his country and humanity at large,'' she told Britain's Channel 4 television in a telephone interview from Damascus. ''It is an absolutely unfounded, irresponsible statement, just like his statements that brought his country and the allied countries into a terrible war, unnecessary war on Iraq.''

Syrian President Bashar Assad has described the military action against Iraq as ''clear occupation and a flagrant aggression against a United Nations member state.''

Rumsfeld also said that Iraqi militants opposed to Saddam Hussein's regime were streaming into Iraq from Iran, where they had been in exile. He said their presence was complicating U.S. war plans.

Sharing a Pentagon briefing with Rumsfeld, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqi government has lost control of 35 percent to 40 percent of its territory and that allied air forces have supremacy over 95 percent of Iraq's airspace.

Rumsfeld said that Iraqi forces were being helped by shipments from Syria, Iraq's neighbor to the West.

''There's no question but that to the extent that military supplies or equipment or people are moving across the borders between Iraq and Syria, it vastly complicates our situation,'' Rumsfeld said.

Asked if the United States was threatening military action against Syria, Rumsfeld said: ''I'm saying exactly what I'm saying. It was carefully phrased.''

''These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces,'' the defense secretary added.

Rumsfeld also said that ''hundreds'' of Iran-backed militants opposed to Saddam's regime, known as the Badr Brigades, were entering Iraq and complicating U.S. war plans drawn up by the on-scene commander, Gen. Tommy Franks.

''To the extent that they interfere with Gen. Frank's activities, they would have to be considered combatants. And therefore we're suggesting they not interfere,'' Rumsfeld said.

''They are Iraqis....They have been housed in Iran, armed by Iran, sponsored by Iran,'' Rumsfeld said. ''Gen. Franks and the coalition countries are busy, they've got a complicated task. We'd prefer it not be made more difficult by the neighbors.''

Rumsfeld and Myers briefed as America's battle plan for Baghdad was taking shape, with U.S. forces now in position to strike the Iraqi capital from nearly all sides - or to mount a siege and wait for Saddam Hussein's regime to fall to internal opposition.

Myers said that Republican Guard units defending the city are ''dug in.''

''They could be consolidating to make a defense. It doesn't make any difference. The outcome is certain,'' said the Joint Chiefs chairman.

The Bush administration's accusations against Syria follow complaints that Russia had sold anti-tank guided missiles, jamming devices and night-vision goggles to Iraq.

The administration has faulted the Russian government for lack of oversight of Russian firms and for not interdicting the shipments. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied the allegations.

While Rumsfeld did not identify the source of the technology, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that Syria does not manufacture such military equipment and gets most of it from Russia.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he could not confirm that Russia passed on the equipment to Iraq but said that Syria has long been a major conduit for Iraq-bound shipments.

When asked if the shipments from Syria were ''state sponsored,'' Rumsfeld said he wouldn't answer because ''it's an intelligence issue.''

''They control their border,'' he added. ''We're hoping that kind of thing doesn't happen.''

As sporadic battles raged between American infantry and defiant Iraqi troops and paramilitary guerrillas, more armor and at least 100,000 reinforcing U.S. and allied troops are on their way to join the coalition force over the next few weeks.

In the interim, the American game plan is simple: bombs, bombs and more bombs.

The Army's senior ground commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace of V Corps, told reporters of The New York Times and The Washington Post on Thursday that unexpected tactics by Iraqi fighters and stretched supply lines were slowing down the campaign. ''The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against,'' the papers quoted Wallace as saying during a visit to the 101st Airborne Division headquarters in central Iraq.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, at the daily briefing at U.S. Central Command in Qatar, insisted U.S. war planners had not underestimated Iraqi fighting capabilities, but said unexpected developments were inevitable in any war. He accused the Iraqis of using ''terrorist death squads'' who changed in and out of civilian clothes.

Meanwhile, a U.S. official involved in military planning and intelligence said Iraqi troops have been spotted between U.S. and Iraqi lines wearing full chemical protection suits and unloading 50- gallon drums from trucks. U.S. intelligence doesn't know what was in the drums, but fear it could be chemicals.

Officials have said that the closer invading forces get to Baghdad, the higher the possibility that a cornered regime will launch an attack with chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam as denied he has.

Rumsfeld Cautions Iran and Syria on Aid to Iraq


WASHINGTON, March 28 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld accused Syria and Iran today of interfering with the American war effort in Iraq.

He said he would hold the Syrian government accountable, the first time anyone in the administration has suggested that the confrontation could be broadened to include states that could be aiding the Iraqi forces.

There was no immediate response from Iran, but in Damascus the reaction to Mr. Rumsfeld's comments was swift. A senior Syrian Foreign Ministry official, while not denying the American assertions, denied that Mr. Rumsfeld was engaged in "an attempt to cover up what his forces are doing against civilians in Iraq, which are a violation of the principles of international humanitarian law."

Mr. Rumsfeld's comments, at a Pentagon briefing, seemed to take White House officials by surprise, but more for their timing than their content.

Several senior administration officials said they were pleased that Mr. Rumsfeld had challenged the two countries so directly, particularly Syria, which, according to the administration, has transferred night-vision goggles and other military equipment to Saddam Hussein's forces. The goggles were originally manufactured in Russia, the White House says.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Rumsfeld said the United States considered "such trafficking as hostile acts and would hold the Syrian government accountable."

He would not say whether the United States would consider military action if the shipments continued, but his language was parallel to the language he and others used several months ago about Iraq.

"I don't think you'll hear the president upbraiding Rumsfeld for what he said," one senior administration official said tonight. "He gave public voice to something that has been talked about around here for a week."

At the same time, Mr. Rumsfeld warned Iran to rein in the Badr Corps, a unit of several hundred Iraqis trained, equipped and financed by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In recent days they have crossed into Iraq and could pose a threat to American-led troops in Iraq, and to postwar stability there.

Mr. Rumsfeld warned Tehran that the United States would treat the fighters as combatants. Mr. Rumsfeld said the Badr Corps had not yet interfered with coalition operations, and one senior defense official said the secretary's comments were "a warning shot" to Tehran.

Mr. Rumsfeld said: "The issue is that General Franks and the coalition countries are busy, they've got a complicated task. We would prefer it not be made more difficult by any of the neighbors."

The Syrian Foreign Ministry official said, "After the failure of his claims of a quick and clear victory, Rumsfeld is trying to justify the failure of his forces, either due to the weather or by accusing others of smuggling equipment into Iraq.

"The invading forces, which are launching a blatant aggression against the Iraqi people, have not registered any accomplishments to date except demolishing civilian facilities and housing, shelling markets, hospitals, museums, food warehouses, busses and ambulances," he added.

Mr. Rumsfeld's statements not only took Syria by surprise but seemed to stun some at the Pentagon, who have never seemed to become accustomed to the fact that the defense secretary knows how to make headlines.

"I was surprised," said one senior military official.

So was the White House. "It's fair to say he didn't tell us this was coming," said one official. "Then again, he rarely does."

President Bush made no mention of the actions of Iraq's neighbors when he spoke this afternoon to veterans of previous wars in the East Room of the White House.

But he seemed to address other countries in the region and perhaps North Korea when he said that in the confrontation with Iraq, "We are sending a clear signal to the world that we will not submit to a future in which dictators and terrorists can arm and threaten the peace without consequence."

Mr. Rumsfeld refused to be drawn into a discussion of what his comments could mean, an ambiguity that senior aides said later was meant to keep the Damascus government guessing.

"I'm saying exactly what I said," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "It was carefully phrased. There's no question but that to the extent military supplies or equipment or people move across borders between Iraq and Syria, that it vastly complicates our situation."


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