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WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld charged yesterday that Syria is helping Saddam Hussein's henchmen flee the country following the collapse of Baghdad.

Speaking at a Pentagon news conference as scenes of jubilation unfolded in the Iraqi capital, Rumsfeld warned that Syria's help to Saddam's crumbling regime is one of many "dangerous and difficult" problems facing coalition forces in the days ahead.

"We are getting scraps of intelligence that Syria has been cooperative in facilitating the move of people out of Iraq and into Syria," Rumsfeld said.

"Then in some cases they stay there and find safekeeping there. In other cases, they move from Syria to some other places," he said.

Other Pentagon officials said the intelligence information suggests that even some members of Saddam's extended family are fleeing to Syria and that earlier this week communications intercepts indicated Saddam himself was considering fleeing to Iraq's western neighbor.

Syria, which also has a strong Ba'ath Party presence, has also shipped night-vision goggles and anti-tank missiles to Iraq and allowed hundreds of terrorists from Egypt, Sudan and Palestinian areas to travel through its country to fight U.S. forces.

"I find it notably unhelpful," Rumsfeld said of Syria's role.

Undersecretary of State John Bolton, speaking in Rome yesterday, warned that Syria, as well as Iran and North Korea, should "draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq."

Stopping the escape of Saddam's henchmen is just one of several objectives Rumsfeld outlined for U.S. military forces in the days and weeks ahead. Finding out whether Saddam Hussein and his thug sons Uday and Qusay are alive or dead and rooting out pockets of regime resistance in Baghdad, Tikrit and Mosul are primary objectives.

Although stopping short of declaring victory, Rumsfeld praised the performance of the U.S. troops in Iraq as well as their commanders and said scenes of Iraqis celebrating their freedom from Saddam were "breathtaking."


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