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Syria, Egypt demand early U.S. withdrawal

Al-Sharaa: "The right response is the withdrawal of the invading forces."

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CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Egypt and Syria called Thursday for a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The demand comes a day ahead of a planned conference of Arab ministers and a day after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he hopes to visit Syria shortly.

The United States this week repeatedly accused Syria of harboring members of Saddam Hussein's fallen regime and of attempting to build its own chemical weapons of mass destruction. (Full story)

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said: "Occupation is not the right response for the stability in Iraq."

"What is the right response is the withdrawal of the invading forces from Iraq, allowing the Iraqi people to decide for themselves what is in their best interest as a government and an institution."

Al-Sharaa's comments came after meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.

Maher also called the quick withdrawal of U.S. troops "very important." Iraqis "want the leadership in our country with their own choice of leaders," he said.

Both ministers plan to attend Friday's regional conference of Arab ministers in Saudi Arabia, which is to deal with the impact of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday Powell's visit is not yet "on the books" and meetings have yet to be scheduled and that if it goes ahead it will be one stop on a wider itinerary.

In an interview to air Thursday on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" Powell said: "Syria has sponsored terrorism over the years; it is considered one of the states that do sponsor terrorism; it's on our list of such states.

"We have also stated clearly over the years that we believe Syria is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we are concerned about, especially, their chemical weapons program.

"I think what highlighted it at this particular point in time is the changed situation in the region. We have been successful in Iraq. There is a new dynamic in that part of the world. And we wanted to point out strongly to the Syrians that this is a time for you to take another look at your policies."

Powell said Wednesday that U.S. officials have provided Syria with information about Iraqi leaders they believe are in Syria.

Al-Sharaa said Thursday he has heard nothing formal about a visit by Powell, but added, "If he is intending to visit Damascus, he is welcome."

The Arab meeting will take place amid a background of increasing U.S. pressure on Syria from the Bush administration, which has called Iraq's western neighbor a "rogue state."

The United States has accused Syria of producing weapons of mass destruction, a charge Syria has denied, and of allowing deposed Iraqi regime leaders into the country.

Among those leaders U.S. officials insist -- despite continued Syrian denials -- is Farouk Hijazi, a former chief of Saddam's Mukhabbarat intelligence service. (Full story)

Al-Sharaa Thursday added that Syria would not let international weapons inspectors into its facilities, but would push for a U.N. resolution to free the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction. (Full story)

The measure is aimed largely at Israel, which is believed to have an extensive nuclear arsenal but has not declared itself a nuclear power.

U.S. officials said they would look at the resolution but that it was not considered a priority.

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