White House steps up criticism of Syria
Powell hints at possible sanctions
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With most of Iraq under control of U.S.-led military forces, the Bush administration cranked up pressure on Syria Monday, accusing it of supporting terror groups, offering safe haven to senior Iraqi leaders and developing chemical weapons.
Syria has denied the charges, but Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted at possible sanctions against Syria.
"We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward," he said. "We are in touch with Syrian authorities."
Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Monday expounded on the blunt warning issued Sunday by President Bush demanding that Syria cooperate with coalition efforts to capture and punish senior Iraqi leaders.
"We believe in light of this new environment that they should review their actions and behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria, and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity," Powell said.
Rumsfeld said intelligence shows that Syria has allowed its citizens and others to cross the border into Iraq armed with weapons and carrying leaflets that indicate they'll be rewarded if they kill Americans and members of coalition.
He said there is other intelligence indicating that some Iraqi people have been allowed into Syria -- in some cases to stay.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer framed the issue in historic terms.
"This is a day of emerging liberation for the people of Iraq and it's important for President (Bashar) Assad of Syria, who is a new leader, a young man, to understand that the future needs to be different from the past and that the Iraqi people deserve no less, the region deserves no less."
Asked whether the United States would consider military action against Syria, Fleischer said, "We always leave options on tables, but our course of action with Syria is focused on reminding Syria this is a good time to re-examine their support of terrorism and a good place to begin is with their harboring of the Iraqi leaders who have fled to Syria. They should not be allowed to find safe haven there."
Fleischer wouldn't name Iraqi individuals who may be in Syria and said, "We shall see what Syria decides to do."
Speaking to reporters at a separate event, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about possible military action against Syria. "I didn't say anything like that," he replied.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Syria must assure the international community that it has cut its ties to the former Iraqi regime.
Rumsfeld and Fleischer quoted a CIA report made public last year that concluded that Syria "already held nerve gas ... but is trying to develop more toxic and persistent nerve agents."
"Why should they have chemical weapons?" Fleischer asked and noted that Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Treaty banning them.
In response to the barrage of accusations, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban denied that her country was giving refuge to officials of Saddam's collapsed regime or has chemical weapons.
"Nobody even would even ask to come to us, because there is no good relation at all" between Baghdad and Damascus, she said.
One of Saddam's half-brothers, Watban Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, was taken into U.S. custody this weekend trying to cross into Syria. Syria says it has now sealed off its border with Iraq.
"Sometimes, they (Washington and London) don't know what they want," said Farouk al-Sharaa, the Syrian foreign minister. "Sometimes, they say you have mass destruction weapons smuggled from Iraq to Syria. Next day, in the Israeli press, they say the opposite."
-- Correspondent Dana Bash, Producer Elise Labott and Senior International Correspondent Sheila MacVicar contributed to this report