Powell plans visit to Syria
U.S. offers Syria information on fugitives, including Hijazi
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday he expects to travel to Syria "to have very candid and straightforward discussions" with President Bashar Assad and others.
The announcement comes during a week of increasing diplomatic pressure on Syria from the Bush administration, which has called Iraq's western neighbor a "rogue state." The United States has also accused Syria of producing weapons of mass destruction.
On Monday, Powell threatened sanctions against Damascus. At the same time, the administration has said there are no immediate plans to expand the war with Iraq to Syria.
A day before, President Bush warned Syria against harboring Saddam loyalists and said U.S. officials "believe there are chemical weapons in Syria."
On Wednesday, U.S. officials were adamant that Farouk Hijazi, former chief of Saddam Hussein's Mukhabbarat intelligence service, is in Syria, despite the Syrian government's continued denials.
To cut through the confusion, Powell said the United States has provided Syria with information about people associated with Saddam's deposed Iraqi regime that American officials believe have taken refuge in Syria.
In an interview with Associated Press Television News, Powell also said he will travel to Syria. He did not say when that trip might take place.
In an interview on CNN's Larry King Live, Syria's ambassador to the United States, Rostom Al-Zoubi, said news of Powell's visit is a positive development.
"It is good news, and it's a good step in the right direction because direct dialogue between us and the United States is better than to accuse from a far distance," he said.
Powell also told APTN that he spoke Wednesday with Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, who is going to Damascus this weekend, "about messages she might deliver."
Syrian officials have strongly denied U.S. charges that Iraqi leaders fled over the border during Operation Iraqi Freedom to take refuge. Al-Zoubi told Larry King that his country has not harbored or received "anybody from the Iraqi regime ... neither before the war, nor after the war."
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara'a told CNN the U.S. charges are "disinformation."
"I say these accusations are baseless, without any ground, and they are meant to mislead the public opinion," Al-Shara'a said.
One knowledgeable U.S. official said specifically that Hijazi arrived Tuesday in Syria "on a direct flight from Tunis."
And Powell told APTN that "we have provided some information to the Syrians that there are individuals that we believe are in Syria who should be returned to Iraq so that they can be held for the justice of the Iraqi people."
"We have been candid with the Syrians, and we have also made clear to the Syrians that we don't think it would be in their interest to be a draw for people who are trying to either get out of Iraq or get out of other places in the world to find a safe haven."
"Syria does not want to be a safe haven in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom," Powell said.
Perhaps the most wanted known fugitive is Hijazi, who had most recently been Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia.
U.S. officials said Hijazi entered Syria on an Iraqi diplomatic passport. However, the Syrian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday denied that Hijazi is in Syria, saying his request for permission to enter the country had been denied.
Some U.S. officials have expressed anger at the Syrians for allegedly harboring Hijazi because he is suspected of involvement in the unsuccessful plot by Iraqi intelligence to kill former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993.
Al-Zoubi said Hijazi is not in Syria and "we will not accept anybody representing the former regime of Saddam Hussein."
"This campaign of accusations should be cooled down because these accusations will not serve neither the interest of the United States of America nor that stability and peace in the region," he said.
CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.