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Washington ups the ante against Syria
Posted: Monday, April 14, 2003

by Amal Hamdan, Al Jazeera with agencies

In an escalating confrontation of words, the United States accused Syria Sunday of possessing chemical weapons, charged its nationals had engaged US troops in combat in Baghdad, provided a safe haven for fleeing Iraqi officials.

In today's instalment, US President George W. Bush stopped short of threatening force against Damascus. Asked if Syria could face military action Bush replied, "They just need to cooperate."

Deputy Syrian ambassador to the US Imad Moustapha said Damascus is willing to allow weapons inspectors into Syria

"We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," Bush told reporters on the White House lawn without elaborating.

"The Syrian government needs to cooperate with the United States," he said. "It must not harbour any Baathists, any military officials who need to be held to account for their tenure."

Syrian officials have strongly denied it had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or was providing a hiding place for Iraqi officials.

Washington has previously accused Damascus of stockpiling chemical weapons. In May 2002 under secretary of state for arms control and international security John Bolton said Syria "has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin and is engaged in research and development of the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX."

Syria does not want to harm ties between Damascus and Washington, Syria's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Buthaina Sha'ban told Al Jazeera TV. She reiterated Syria was not stockpiling chemical weapons.

Sha'ban also denied Damascus had offered shelter to top Iraqi officials, saying the Iraq-Syria border was now closed. The foreign ministry spokeswoman pointed out that historically, Syrian-Iraqi ties were not friendly but Damascus sympathised with the Iraqi population.

When asked if Syria was paying a price for opposing the US-led war against Iraq, Sha'ban said she didn't think so, adding there was continuous dialogue between Washington and Damascus.

She accused Israel of masterminding the accusations in an effort to sour US-Syrian ties. Reports attributed to Israeli intelligence say that prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Baghdad had placed its WMD's and banned missiles close to the Syrian border to facilitate a quick crossover.

US and Syrian interests in the region are similar, Sha'ban said in response to a question on whether the latest accusations were a bid to pressure Damascus' position in the Middle East peace process.

Imad Moustapha, the number two in Syria's embassy in Washington, said Damascus was willing to accept international inspections to allay US fears that it possesses WMD. Sha'ban told Al Jazeera she hadn't heard the statement.

But Moustapha told NBC's "Meet the Press": "We will not only accept the most rigid inspection regime, we will welcome it heartily."

"Please help us free the Middle East from weapons of mass destruction," he said, urging Washington to rid the region, including Israel, from stockpiling these weapons.

He also denied that Syria was assisting members of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's former government.

"It's been a campaign of misinformation and disinformation about Syria since even before the war started. This is just an ongoing series of false accusations," he said.

Moustapha insisted that no member of Hussein's regime had fled across the border into Syria and called on Washington to secure the frontier.

"You have a huge US army in Iraq that has secured Iraqi western borders and you are controlling the situation there. If you have problems, please let the US army deal with these problems," he said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak spoke to his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad, hours after Bush reiterated US allegations. Egypt's official MENA news agency reported the two leaders discussed "developments in the Iraqi question and the global situation in the Middle East," without giving further details.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said earlier that Washington had reports that some of Iraq's alleged WMD may have been sent to a neighbouring country but would not identify the country.

Syria is "making a lot of bad mistakes, a lot of bad judgment calls, in my view, and they're associating with the wrong people," charged Rumsfeld. "I mean, who in the world would want to invest in Syria? Who would want to go in tourism in Syria?"

Earlier in Beirut, French Foreign Minister Dominique De Villepin said the time was not right for the United States to raise pressure on Syria by accusing it of aiding Hussein's collapsed regime. "

"The time is for consultation, for dialogue, and we should be very careful in putting all our energies to try to find solutions because we do have enough problems," he told reporters after meeting with Lebanese officials.

"Pressure Card"

Washington includes Syria on its list of countries that supports terrorism, a charge Damascus denies.

"The appetite of some of the ideologues in the Bush administration has expanded considerably following the quick victory in Iraq," said Dr. Fawaz Gerges, an ABC television Middle East commentator.

But he dismissed concerns that Syria and Iran, which Bush described as part of the axis of evil two years ago, would be targeted, saying there was no consensus in Washington to use force against these two countries.

"The administration is using the pressure card" to ensure Syria, which staunchly opposed the US-led war against Baghdad, does not interfere in Iraq's future, said Gerges.

"The perception in Washington is ‘they haven't cooperated and how dare they? We have told them to be quiet and they haven't.' But there hasn't been a strategic decision in Washington to use force," he explained.

Both Iran and Syria are trying to limit damage and not give Washington any ammunition, added Gerges "I don't think Syrians should play into the hardliners hands," he said, adding Damascus was aware of the new geopolitical climate and is trying to cope with it.

"The hardliners won the argument with Iraq but it's a special case," said Gerges. "The foreign policy establishment (in the US) knows Syria responds to pressure," he added.

Gerges said it was unlikely that Syria was storing weapons of mass destruction on behalf of Iraq, adding Damascus understood the serious consequences that this would carry.

"I find it very difficult that they would turn away low-level officials," said Gerges in response to whether Syria was harbouring top Baath members. But by providing refuge for low-level Iraqi officials Syria, "isn't putting itself in direct confrontation with Washington," he added.

US allegations that Syria was stockpiling WMD were not new unlike claims that Syria was proactive in assisting Iraq. "It's just to tighten the noose," said Gerges.

To add to the pressure, the latest European edition of Time magazine has reported that a key Al-Qaeda operative was allowed to operate out of Syria with the full knowledge of the country's security services.

"Beginning last January and continuing through the first week of the war, Mullah Abderrazzak -- a Tunisian member of the Ansar Al Islam terrorist group -- made satellite telephone calls from Syria to Milan-based Islamic terrorists, according to court papers filed in Milan", said the US news weekly.

Abderrazzak wanted the "terrorists" to leave Europe and join the fight against US and British troops in Iraq, an Italian anti-terrorist invesitgator told Time.

Al Jazeera with agencies

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