Bush warns Syria and Iran against `meddling' in Iraq

SABER-RATTLING: The US government once again accused Syria and Iran of seeking to derail the reconstruction of Iraq, but failed to back up its claims


Sat, Dec 25, 2004 - Page 7

Despite US President George W. Bush's stern warnings to Iran and Syria against "meddling" in Iraq, Washington has shown no sign of readying new sanctions and appears to have little leverage with either state.

Bush raised eyebrows last week when he issued the threat to the two countries accused by the US-installed Baghdad government of orchestrating attacks in Iraq ahead of next month's crucial elections.

"We will continue to make it clear to both Syria and Iran that ... meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interest," the president said after talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

He repeated the warning on Monday and said Washington had a variety of diplomatic and economic measures it could take against Syria, accused of helping funnel money and manpower across the border to Iraqi insurgents. But US officials said there was nothing currently in the pipeline beyond the sanctions imposed in May, including a near-blanket ban on US exports to Syria and a green light to freeze Syrian assets in the US.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration was constantly reviewing the Syrian Accountability Act enacted a year ago to halt Damascus' alleged support of terrorism.

"But I don't have anything new at this point," he said.

Officials said the Syrians have shown some signs of cooperating, helping to crack down on funding for anti-American insurgents and tightening their border patrols. Some 1,000-2,000 people reportedly have been arrested trying to cross over into Iraq.

Washington still has some options available to it under the Accountability Act, including downgrading bilateral diplomatic ties and imposing travel restrictions on Syrian envoys in the US.

But the Bush administration is displaying little inclination for such heavy measures, which officials said could cut off lines of communication with Damascus and jeopardize the current level of help they are getting from the Syrians.

"The screws are on pretty good right now, but there is no talk at this point of doing anything more," said one US official, who asked not to be named.

Still, the US continues to ratchet up its rhetoric. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage kept up the pressure Wednesday, warning Damascus its ties with the US depended on whether it refrained from interfering in Iraq and Lebanon.

Asked in an interview with Arab journalists whether he expected relations to remain frosty, the State Department No. 2 said: "I would hope for a much better day with Syria, but it's all up to [President Bashar] al-Assad and his colleagues."