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Lawmaker: Syria vows not to harbor wanted Iraqis

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, talks with Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak, on Sunday in Damascus.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, talks with Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak, on Sunday in Damascus.

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U.S. president George W. Bush is showing signs of trying to mend the rift with Syria through diplomatic means. CNN's Tim Lister reports (Apirl 21)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad has given a "solid commitment" not to allow suspected Iraqi war criminals into his country, a U.S. congressman said Sunday.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, said that he met with the Syria leader for two hours "of candid dialogue" and that Assad gave assurances he would expel any suspected war criminals and would not grant them asylum.

In an interview on "Fox News Sunday," Issa called it a "step in the right direction." "Time will tell if we can enforce this," he said.

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia, accompanied Issa on the trip.

Issa said Assad told him that he believed some members of Saddam's regime "may have passed through" Syria.

"He has closed the borders, and they are certainly looking for some of these people," Issa said. "This is an ongoing problem, but one in which I think we're going to get cooperation."

Some who fled are wanted for war crimes in Syria, Issa said, noting that Assad has a "vested" interest in hunting them down.

Bush administration officials have accused Syria of harboring people linked to Saddam Hussein's regime and developing chemical weapons. They have warned the Assad government to cooperate with U.S.-led coalition efforts in Iraq.

President Bush said on Sunday, however, that there were "positive signs" that Syria would heed U.S. demands that it not harbor members of Saddam Hussein's former regime.

"There's some positive signs," he said in Fort Hood, Texas. "They're getting the message that they should not harbor Baath Party officials, high-ranking Iraqi officials."

Issa said he believes possible U.S. military action against Syria is a concern to Assad, but he said, "We didn't come to threaten him."

Assad denies weapons of mass destruction from Iraq made their way through Syria. However, the Syrian leader didn't deny his country has a weapons program, Issa said.

Issa noted that Syria's stance is for a U.N. ban on weapons of mass destruction in the region. "[It's] their way of saying we'll get rid of ours if Israel gets rid of theirs," Issa said.

Syria is believed to be developing chemical weapons, Issa said.

Assad was asked to shut down the offices of terror groups in his country, Issa said.

"He received loud and clear from us the need to close these offices," Issa said. "Of course, his defense is they are only informational, but he didn't say no."

On ABC's "This Week," Rahall said a "strong request" was made to close the offices of Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups in Syria.

Rahall said the Syrian leader also was asked to encourage the Lebanese to put their soldiers on the border.

"That would send the right message. There should be Lebanese soldiers standing on the border, not Hezbollah militia," Rahall said. "... Certainly the president understands the messages that are being delivered, and he wants to address the issues that are contained therein."

He added, "We have to recognize, as we did in our meeting this morning, that Syria has helped the United States in our fight against al Qaeda. And we want to first thank him for that effort. They have captured key al Qaeda operatives, information from which has led us to prevent the loss of American lives. ...

"President Assad, indeed, Syria, is not America's enemy. They do not want to be America's enemy, and they are making every effort to address these issues, and progress is being made," Rahall said.

Rahall was asked about U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's announcement about the oil pipeline shutdown between Syria and Iraq and calls for tough sanctions against Syria.

The congressman cautioned against what he called "Syria-bashing."

"The closing down of that pipeline and the loss of revenues thereby has put that issue very much on the table," Rahall said. "If we are to work with the Syrians and want to address their problems, their interests in this region have to be addressed as well."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that he plans to travel to Syria "in the not-too-distant future" as part of a larger trip to rekindle the Middle East peace process. But Powell said a visit to the Syrian capital of Damascus is not imminent.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced Sunday that the United States does not intend to use military force in Syria but wants to pursue a "political solution" to any problems, Issa said.

"A lot of what we did," Issa said, was help lay groundwork for an eventual meeting.

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