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U.S. Steps Up Campaign to Warn Syria

By Anne Q. Hoy

April 14, 2003

Washington - The Bush administration placed Syria in its diplomatic crosshairs yesterday as officials from President George W. Bush on down warned Damascus to cooperate and stop providing a safe haven to senior officials of Saddam Hussein's vanquished regime.

"The Syrian government needs to cooperate with the United States and our coalition partners and not harbor any - any Baathists, any military officials, any people who need to be held to account for their tenure during what we are learning more and more about," Bush cautioned in response to questions from reporters on the White House lawn.

The president cited the long-held U.S. position that Syria has chemical weapons. The statement and the intensified pressure added to the growing perception that administration hawks have found in Syria a replacement for Iraq as a member of the notorious "axis of evil."

Nations such as Syria and North Korea, Bush said, should take this message from the dramatic fall of Hussein's regime in Iraq: "We are serious about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and that each situation requires a different response."

For weeks the Bush administration has deployed increasingly tough talk toward Syria, beginning with admonitions against providing Iraqi forces with sophisticated night-vision goggles to warnings in recent days against shielding fleeing officials of Hussein's regime.

The aggressive stance came amid reports yesterday that Hussein's half-brother, Watban Ibrahim Hasan, was captured apparently trying to get to Syria and that a Marine was killed at a Baghdad checkpoint by a gunman with Syrian identity papers.

U.S. intelligence and other government organizations have fingered Syria for years as having a sophisticated chemical and biological weapons program, including stockpiles of the nerve agent sarin. The State Department has placed Syria on its list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list began in 1979.

Syrian officials denied giving help to the fleeing Iraqi regime members. Imad Moustapha, Syrian deputy ambassador to the United States, yesterday called the claims "disinformation and misinformation" intended to distract world attention from the "chaos and the lawlessness and the catastrophe, the human catastrophe" taking hold in Iraq.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Moustapha said Syria has not provided a haven to any of Hussein's regime. He noted, however, that Syria allows anyone carrying an Arab passport to enter or leave the country.

Secretary of State Colin Powell also issued a warning to Syria. In an interview on BBC One's "Breakfast with Frost," Powell said it would be "very unwise" for Syria to provide an escape hatch for fleeing Iraqis.

"Syria has been a concern for a long period of time ... We are concerned that materials have flowed through Syria to the Iraqi regime over the years," Powell said. "We are making this point clearly and in a very direct manner to the Syrians."

He added: "We think it would be very unwise ... if suddenly Syria suddenly becomes a haven for all these people who should be brought to justice who are trying to get out of Baghdad."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, appearing on two Sunday talk shows, said that busloads of Syrian fighters have been entering Iraq and that some have been found in Baghdad in the past 24 hours.

On "Meet The Press," Rumsfeld said "there is no question" that Syria has allowed some senior members of Hussein's regime to cross its borders, to remain in Syria and to travel to other nations.

Rumsfeld later told reporters that Syria has "not noticeably" heeded the recent administration warnings. "We certainly are hopeful that Syria will not become a haven for war criminals or terrorists," he said.

Concern about Syria also has reached Congress. Before the current two-week recess began, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), an International Relations Committee member, introduced a bill calling on Bush to impose sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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