Bush administration accuses Syria of harboring Iraqi leaders

Monday, April 14, 2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush warned Syria on Sunday not to harbor Iraqi leaders and charged that Damascus has chemical weapons, but was careful not to threaten military action.

"They just need to cooperate," Bush said.

Bush sought to strike the kind of measured tone he has used when discussing the North Korea crisis.

"We expect cooperation, and I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation," he told reporters after returning to the White House from Camp David.

Syria's foreign ministry spokeswoman, Buthayna Shaaban, seemed to strike a conciliatory tone in a telephone interview with Al-Jazeera television.

She said Syria's borders with Iraq are now closed and reiterated that none of the Iraqi leaders had asked to come to Syria.

"As you know Syria's history with the Iraqi regime have never been cordial, but we have always been keen about the Iraqi people," she said.

Shaaban said Syria had opposed the war against Iraq because of potential harm to the Iraqi people.

"I believe we are conducting continuous dialogue with the American officials," she said. "The problem is all the accusations against Syria come from Israel. Israel is the primary instigator to undermine Syrian-American relations, but I don't believe Israel will succeed in its attempts."

However, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the majority of foreign fighters in Iraq were from Syria, brought in by the "busloads."

Rumsfeld also said top members of Saddam's government had fled to Syria.

U.S.-led forces captured one of Saddam Hussein's half brothers in northern Iraq, and said he was planning to cross the border to Syria.

Rumsfeld last month warned Syria to stop sending military equipment -- including night-vision goggles -- to Iraqi forces, saying "We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."

Asked Sunday whether Syria had heeded those demands, Rumsfeld said, "Not noticeably."

Bush and Rumsfeld were ambiguous about what price Syria might pay for defying the United States, but seemed eager to make sure that Damascus understood the message in the coalition's toppling of Saddam.

"People have got to know that we are serious about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction," Bush said.

Noting during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Syria is on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, Rumsfeld said: "Being on the terrorist list is not some place I'd want to be. The (Syrian) government's making a lot of bad mistakes, a lot of bad judgments calls, in my view, and they're associating with the wrong people."

Following Rumsfeld on the NBC show, Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, said the administration's flurry of charges was a "campaign of misinformation and disinformation" meant to divert attention from the "human catastrophes" taking place in wartime Iraq.

Moustapha called the administration's charges "false accusations."

No member of the Iraqi leadership has fled into Syria, he said.

However, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Al-Douri, arrived in Syria Saturday, a day after leaving New York. It was not immediately clear when or whether he would return to Iraq.

Moustapha said Syria has a liberal immigration policy, and did not deny that Al-Douri was in Syria.

The deputy ambassador also invited international inspectors to scour his country, but seemed to tie the offer to similar inspections elsewhere in the region, including in Israel.

"Israel is the country that is stockpiling nuclear weapons," he said.

Asked about reports that Syria would welcome international inspectors to ascertain that Syria does not posses weapons of mass destruction, Shaaban said in her Al-Jazeera interview: "I don't know who is the source of this report. I am surprised by it."

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