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State Depart. Presses Syria on Terror

August 19, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The State Department credited Syria on Tuesday with ``limited progress″ in restraining terrorists from crossing the border with Iraq and in expelling some extremists.

But President Bashar Assad’s government has not gone far enough, particularly in closing the offices of extremist groups in Damascus, department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Earlier, and before Tuesday’s bloody truck bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the top U.S. official in Iraq took a tougher line against Syria.

L. Paul Bremer, who is in charge of U.S. occupation forces, said Syria was allowing foreign terrorists to sneak across the border.

``We held talks with the Syrians in this regard,″ Bremer told the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Hayat. ``We hope to see better cooperation.″

Bremer also said he was still worried about Iran meddling in Iraq’s affairs. He accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian intelligence of actively working against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

``This is irresponsible conduct and runs counter to Iraq’s interests. We believe that a free Iraq must not be subject to any interference by its neighbors,″ Bremer said.

Terrorism was on the agenda when Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks last spring in Damascus and during a meeting Assistant Secretary of State William Burns held last week with Assad in the Syrian capital. Syria opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

But Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said Monday in Jerusalem after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Sharon had complained that Syria allows Hezbollah to ``run wild″ in Lebanon and does not feel the heat of U.S. diplomatic overtures.

Engel said in a telephone interview that he would push a bill to sanction Syria unless it stops helping Hezbollah guerrillas and ends its military occupation of Lebanon.

The State Department has called on Syria to end its support for the group, which has resumed its cross-border conflict with Israel. Assad, however, defended recent rocket attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas on the Israel-Lebanon border, telling Burns they were in response to Israeli provocations.

Syria is listed by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism and Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Boucher said ``the Syrians understand and continue to understand that we expect to see continued progress, we expect to see significant progress.″

The spokesman said ``we’ll keep pressing in that direction.″

Boucher said it was important that Syria restrain the activities of terrorists and terrorist groups, police its borders to prevent crossings and use its influence to restraint activity on the border between Lebanon and Israel.

``We’ve all noted in the past some efforts that the Syrians have made, whether it was closing the border or kicking some people out,″ he said. ``But like in the other areas, it’s been limited progress, it hasn’t been enough, and we’ve kept pressing for more.″

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