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U.S.: Washington Piles Pressure On Syria, Sparking French, Arab Reaction

Washington, 14 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Washington has stepped up its pressure on Syria, but U.S. demands that Damascus not harbor Saddam Hussein or his associates have sparked strong reactions from France and Arab leaders.

Washington's latest rhetorical attack on Damascus came from its three biggest guns -- President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

All three officials spoke after media reports yesterday that Saddam Hussein's half-brother, Watban Ibrahim, was captured by coalition forces as he attempted to flee to Syria.

Bush, the last of the three to speak, told reporters at the White House that the example of Iraq should show the other members of his "axis of evil" -- Iran and North Korea -- that Washington is serious about dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

He added yet another U.S. warning that Syria must cooperate with Washington and not harbor Iraqi officials. Asked about other U.S. concerns about Syria, Bush added: "I think that we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria, for example. Each situation will require a different response. First things first, we're here in Iraq now and the second thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation. And I'm hopeful that we'll receive cooperation."

Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, denied that his country was harboring escaped Iraqis. He said it was the responsibility of U.S. troops to monitor Iraq's border with Syria.

Earlier, Powell made similar warnings in an interview with the BBC, and Rumsfeld told the CBS television that Syria was in fact giving safe haven to elements of the former Iraq regime.

Their remarks drew a quick reply from France, whose foreign minister is on a swing through the Middle East. Dominique de Villepin said that now is not the time to be pressuring Syria and that the world community should focus instead on rebuilding Iraq and reviving Middle East peace efforts.

Asked about Villepin's remarks, Rumsfeld bristled, accusing Paris of ignoring reality and living a lie. He added: "The comment that you cited suggests that the truth doesn't have any value, and the truth does have value. And the fact of the matter is that Syria has been unhelpful, and pretending that that is not the case is to deny the truth, and I don't think you can live a lie."

France's call was joined by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mussa, who told reporters in Cairo that U.S. threats against Syria would only further inflame the situation in the Middle East.

Rumsfeld insisted that the remarks merely reflect the reality on the ground in Iraq. He said coalition forces have been engaged with people crossing the border into Iraq from Syria, sometimes killing them. He added: "We did see busloads of people coming out of Syria into the country. Some we stopped. The ones we could find, we turned them around and sent them back. The others we've impounded and put into enemy prisoner-of-war camps."

Rumsfeld also said that coalition forces had been fighting with non-Iraqis in Baghdad, several of whom were Syrian nationals.

Earlier on 13 April, the U.S. military said a gunman who shot dead a U.S. Marine guarding a hospital in Baghdad had a Syrian identification card.

On 12 April, the U.S. military said its special forces had detained 59 men who were trying to flee across the Syrian border with Iraq carrying cash and letters offering rewards for killing U.S. soldiers. Among their possessions, the military said, were letters offering financial rewards for killing American soldiers and $630,000 in $100 bills.

The swift U.S. military march through Iraq has fueled speculation that Washington may seek to attack other nations -- such as Iran or Syria -- it accuses of supporting terrorism and harboring weapons of mass destruction. But Powell said on 11 April that Washington has no list of nations that it plans to attack after the war with Iraq is over.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw echoed that in comments today in Bahrain: "There are important questions which the Syrians need to answer. So far as 'is Syria next on the list?' -- we have made it clear that it is not. There is no 'next' list."

However, as Bush said yesterday, Washington hopes Baghdad's experience will persuade others to stop pursuing chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons and to cease supporting terrorism.