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U.S. Turns Up Heat on Syria, Considers Various Measures

By William Douglas
NEWSDAY -- washington

The Bush administration stepped up its rhetoric against Syria Monday, saying it would weigh diplomatic, economic and other measures against Damascus for allegedly providing refuge to fleeing Iraqi officials and testing chemical weapons.

While officials at the White House, State Department and Defense Department sternly stated that Syria must modify its behavior, they stopped short of saying the United States would use military force if its concerns weren’t addressed.

“I think what’s next is Syria needs to seriously ponder the implications of their actions in terms of harboring Iraqis who need not and should not be harbored; they should think seriously about their program to develop and to have chemical weapons,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. “I think it’s time to think through where they want their place to be in the world.”

Syrian officials vigorously denied they were harboring Iraqi officials and rebuffed Washington’s claims that Syria possesses chemical weapons. But that did not stem the stream of complaints from Bush administration officials, which sounded similar to their justifications for invading Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Fleischer, quoting a CIA report to Congress, said Syria conducted a chemical weapons test in the past 12 to 15 months.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States has intelligence that since the war began, Syria has allowed some Iraqis into the country, “in some cases to stay, in some cases to transit.”

“We’re told the border is closed, but as you know, it’s a rather porous border,” Powell told reporters after a State Department meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Affairs Minister Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah. “... But once they (Iraqi leaders) get into Syria and start heading to Damascus, I would expect that Syrian authorities would do everything they could to not provide these people safe haven.”

Top-ranking administration officials did not say which Iraqis they believe have crossed into Syria or whether they included any of the most-wanted Iraqi leaders, whose faces were placed on cards distributed throughout Iraq last week.

“It’s fair to assume that some members of the regime successfully crossed the border,” said an official familiar with the CIA’s reporting on Syria. “What is unclear is whether it includes any of those listed in the top 55. We don’t know.”

When asked about potential war with Syria, Powell said the White House would examine using “diplomatic, economic” or other measures against Syria if it fails to comply with U.S. demands.

The administration’s rhetoric has raised questions worldwide about whether the United States might strike Syria next in its war against terrorism. Britain, the main U.S. ally against Iraq, indicated that war with Damascus is not on the horizon.

“We have made it clear that there are no plans for Syria to be next on the list,” British Foreign Minister Jack Straw told reporters in Bahrain, his first stop on a Middle East tour to discuss rebuilding Iraq. “But there are questions that the Syrians need to answer.”

Edward Walker, who headed the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Syria from 1978 to 1980, said the White House has resorted to tough rhetoric because Syrian officials haven’t paid attention through normal diplomatic channels.