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Powell backs off comments on Syria

Powell said he told Syria's President Bashar Assad the United States
Powell said he told Syria's President Bashar Assad the United States "would be watching."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Sunday backed off comments he had made a day earlier that Syria has begun closing offices of groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations.

Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Powell said only that Syrian President Bashar Assad "said he was taking action to close down these offices and that he would restrict their ability to communicate."

But, Powell added, "it is not what he says, it's ... what actually happened, what actually happens on the ground. And what I said to him is that we would be watching, and we would measure performance over time to see whether Syria is prepared now to move in a new direction."

In a separate interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Powell said the sites Assad promised to close include the Damascus offices of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. All are designated terrorist organizations by the United States and have claimed responsibilities for attacks that killed and wounded Americans.

The United States is also concerned about Syrian support for Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, Powell told ABC.

On Saturday, following his meeting with Bashar in Damascus, Powell said Syria "did some closures; I expect them to do more."

But he told ABC that "an observation a few hours after our conversation might or might not be totally indicative of the action he plans to take."

"The clear message to President Bashar Assad was that there is a new situation in the region, with the end of the Hussein regime and with a commitment on the part of the United States and President Bush to go forward with the Middle East peace plan and to table a road map. And he can be a part of positive developments in the region if he chooses to do so."

The United States is also still concerned about the flow of weapons and Iraqi fugitives into Syria from Iraq, Powell told NBC's "Meet the Press."

Two years ago, Assad promised to stop receiving oil from Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions and then broke his promise, Powell told ABC.

Asked what consequences Syria could face if it doesn't do what the United States wants, Powell replied, "Some in Congress are calling for the passage of a Syria Accountability Act, and, of course, the Patriot Act also provides some sanctions against countries that do not support our efforts with respect to freezing terrorist assets and finances."

Powell reiterated President Bush's pledge to "confront" any nation that harbors terrorists or threatens "the civilized world," but stressed that military force is only one of many options. "There are many ways to confront a nation," he said.

The same warnings and the same options, Powell said, pertain to nations such as Cuba, Sudan, North Korea and Iran -- all named by the State Department as actively supporting terrorism.

Military force against Cuba, for example, would not be "appropriate" because "we believe Cuba is isolated," Powell said. The country is "getting poorer and poorer," he said. "Cuba is an anachronism ... and history will catch up with them."

Regarding Iran, Powell said the United States has "ways to communicate with the people of Iran to convince them that the policies their leaders have been following are inappropriate."

The United States is operating radio and television networks designed to reach the Iranian people.

Diplomatic efforts to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program have seen some success, Powell said, because Pyongyang's neighbors understand that the problem "is not just a problem between the North Koreans and the United States."

"Everyone has now made it clear to North Korea that they will not find any assistance coming to them from the region ... unless they abandon their nuclear weapons program," the secretary said.

In an uncharacteristic turn for the nation's top diplomat, Powell told NBC that harsh criticism of his department from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was "a blunderbuss attack that was an attack against the president's policies and against me."

Gingrich, in a speech two weeks ago, accused the State Department of repeated diplomatic failures and said, "The concept of the American secretary of state going to Damascus to meet with a terrorist-supporting, secret-police-wielding dictator is ludicrous."

Powell said his trip to Syria was approved by the president.

"Mr. Gingrich was taking a broad swipe and shot at the policies of the United States," he said. "He missed the State Department and hit the president."


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