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Straw: Syria must cut Iraq ties

Straw meets with Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister during tour of Gulf.
Straw meets with Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister during tour of Gulf.

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The United States accuses Syria of aiding the former Iraqi regime, but Damascus says the White House is spreading misinformation. CNN's Andrea Koppel reports. (April 14)
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MANAMA, Bahrain (CNN) -- British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called on Syria Monday to assure the international community it has severed ties with Iraq's former regime and does not possess illegal chemical weapons.

Straw, echoing comments by the U.S. administration, said Damascus needed to show it is cooperating with the coalition's efforts to find Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi fugitives, as well as ease concerns over its own weapons program.

"Now the new reality in the Middle East is that Saddam has gone ... but that carries with it its own imperatives, and it is crucial that no country in the region harbors fugitives of Saddam's entourage, nor allows itself to be a sponsor of terrorism," Straw told reporters in Bahrain on his first stop in a tour of the Gulf states.

On Sunday, U.S. President George W. Bush said Washington believed Damascus was harboring senior Iraqi officials and "we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria."

Syria has denied the allegations, saying they were "misinformation" to divert attention from civil disorder in Iraq after coalition forces took control of most of the country.

Straw said he did not know if Syria was developing illegal weapons but added: "What is important ... is for Syria fully to cooperate over these questions that have been raised."

He also played down concerns that Britain and the United States have targeted Syria for war after Iraq.

"As far as 'Syria next on the list', we made clear that it is not," Straw told reporters in Bahrain, his first stop in a tour that will take him to Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the weekend, and Straw said he held talks with his Syrian counterpart Farouk al-Sharaa on Friday.

UK Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien was heading to Syria on Monday to follow up on those discussions.

Also Monday, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana urged Washington to tone down its harsh statements about Syria, saying it was time to "cool down" the tense situation in the Middle East.

"The region is going through a very difficult process and I think it would be better to make constructive statements to see if we can cool down the situation in the region," Solana told reporters in Luxembourg before a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

U.S. and Syria exchange allegations

Over the weekend, the U.S. and Syrian governments traded allegations on whether Damascus had weapon of mass destruction or was harboring fleeing members of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Bush told reporters in Washington: "We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria." Damascus needed to cooperate with the U.S., he added.

Bush
Bush: "We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a TV interview that Syria had bussed fighters into Iraq, but coalition forces turned them away. He said there was "no question" that members of Saddam's regime fled to Syria.

"Syria's been on the terrorist list for years," Rumsfeld said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the BBC: "Syria has been a concern for a long period of time. We have designated Syria for years as a state that sponsors terrorism.

"Now that the regime is gone in Baghdad, we hope that Syria will understand there is an opportunity for a better way for them if they would stop supporting terrorist activities and make sure they are not a source of weaponry of mass destruction ... for terrorist organizations or anyone else."

Imad Moustapha, Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Washington was trying to divert attention from chaos and lawlessness in Iraq.

Asked whether Syria was harboring terrorists or pursuing weapons of mass destruction, he referred to two articles in the Washington Times saying that Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had never seen movement of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq to Syria or in the other direction, and that Syria had been cooperating with the CIA in combating terrorism.

"Please help us free this region from all weapons of mass destruction ... Please inspect every country in the Middle East," Moustapha said. "You know very well that Israel is stockpiling nuclear weapons."

Moustapha: U.S. trying to divert attention from Iraq chaos.
Moustapha: U.S. trying to divert attention from Iraq chaos.

On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom joined in the debate by saying terror organizations acting from within Syria "must be stopped."

"We know what kind of role Syria is taking in letting terror organizations increase their activities, but unfortunately they're not doing anything to prevent it from stopping. More than that, they're encouraging all of this," Shalom said in Ankara, where he was meeting with Turkish government officials.

Shalom said Israel has worked toward achieving peace with Syria and said that "even now, we think that if Syria takes positive steps within the region, of course it will bring a new atmosphere and more peace and more quiet and stability."

Syrians 'among non-Iraqis fighters'

Meanwhile, coalition forces said Monday they are hunting down Syrian fighters who have entered Iraq.

"These volunteers claim they are here in Iraq to protect the Iraqi people, but the Iraqi people continue to inform us that they don't require such protection," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of U.S. Central Command said Monday.

Brooks said the "greatest density" of non-Iraqi fighters are Syrians, but other countries have been represented as well. There have been cases where non-Iraqi fighters have attempted to enter from Syria and there have been some recruiting efforts in Syria, he said.

Many non-Iraqi fighters have mixed in with regime death squads and then joined the regular Iraqi army and Republican Guard forces, he said. Others have been seen in groups of 10 to 20 in areas as "ambush points."

"Right now, these are the tactics of terrorists" who have been paid to come into Iraq, Brooks said. "We don't have a good number on how many (non-Iraqi fighters) there are, but we know they don't have a future in Iraq."


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