The Washington Times

Syria pledges to help U.S. in rebuilding of Iraq

April 17, 2003
Section: PAGE ONE

Page: A01


Syria yesterday pledged to cooperate with the United States in the rebuilding of Iraq and denied U.S. accusations that it had harbored an Iraqi intelligence officer linked to the 1993 plot to assassinate President Bush's father.

In Damascus, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthayna Shaaban denied that Faruq Hijazi, the former head of Iraq's Mukhabarat intelligence service, was in Syria and said no other Iraqis had fled there. The Syrian denial came a day after U.S. officials first made the charge.

"Syria will always cooperate in things that serve the Iraqi people's interests," Miss Shaaban said.

"The diplomatic channels are much quieter and much more constructive," she said. "I really take all these statements with a positive tinge to them. The objective is to engage and talk about issues rather than to threaten."

But a senior administration official told The Washington Times yesterday that Mr. Hijazi was tracked within the past two days from his post as dictator Saddam Hussein's ambassador to Tunisia to the Syrian capital on board a commercial jetliner.

To ease U.S.-Syrian tensions, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the Associated Press yesterday that he will travel to Damascus in the near future for talks with Bashar Assad, the Syrian president.

"Syria does not want to be a safe haven in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom," Mr. Powell said, noting that "lots of messages" were exchanged recently between the countries.

Mr. Hijazi, at one time the head of external operations for the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service, also has been identified in intelligence reports as having met with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s, a second U.S. official said.

Mr. Hijazi fled to Syria rather than his home country apparently because he recognized that Saddam's regime was collapsing, the second official said on the condition of anonymity.

"He's a thug with enough of a diplomatic veneer to serve as an ambassador," the official said.

Asked about recent statements from Syrian officials about agreeing to help the United States, the senior administration official said there have been "some noises" but little action.

"There are still ongoing concerns with regard to Syria," the senior official said on the condition of anonymity, noting the presence of Mr. Hijazi in Syria.

In Damascus yesterday, Miss Shaaban said Syria would not close the offices of Palestinian terrorist groups in her country, but said relations between Washington and Damascus "are not so bad."

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa also said yesterday that his government is willing to sign a treaty that would make the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.

"The Syrian government is ready to sign a treaty under U.N. supervision to make the whole Middle East a zone free from all mass destruction weapons - nuclear, chemical and biological," the minister told Australia's SBS television.

The measure appeared to be a response to complaints by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that Syria recently conducted chemical-weapons tests.

It also is aimed at Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons but has not confirmed or denied possessing them.

Mr. Hijazi was the Mukhabarat's operations chief in 1993, when Saddam's regime made an attempt to assassinate former President George Bush during his visit to Kuwait.

Kuwaiti authorities arrested 16 persons, including two Iraqi nationals, who planned to carry out a car bombing. U.S. intelligence concluded that Iraqi intelligence directed the bombing attempt.

The discovery of the plot resulted in a U.S. cruise missile attack on the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service in Baghdad in 1993.

Mr. Hijazi was spotted in Syria earlier this week after arriving from Tunisia, the senior administration official said. Mr. Hijazi also was recently Saddam's ambassador to Turkey.

Syria also is armed with nerve-gas-tipped missiles and is working on deadly germ weapons, U.S. officials said yesterday. It has a nuclear-power program that could provide the basis for the development of nuclear weapons, the officials said.

Reports of Damascus' recent support for fleeing Iraqi leaders and its covert military assistance to Iraq - in weapons and paramilitary fighters - prompted the Bush administration to embark upon a high-profile effort to put public pressure on Syria.

The second U.S. official said there are some positive signs that U.S. pressure on Syria may lead to a change in its pro-Saddam stance.

"[The Syrians] are feeling the pressure, and I think they've gotten the message," the U.S. official said.

One sign of a turnaround on the part of Damascus was the recent capture by coalition forces of a senior Iraqi nuclear-arms scientist, who was picked up in an unspecified country in the Persian Gulf last week.

The scientist, Jaffar al-Jaffer, had fled to Syria during the war in Iraq. But he recently surrendered to U.S. officials outside Syria.

U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that Syria, which has supported terrorist groups for decades, could provide its deadly weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

The State Department's annual report "Patterns of Global Terrorism" stated that Mr. Assad and other senior Syrian officials condemned the September 11 attacks and that Damascus has worked with the United States in providing information about the al Qaeda network.

But the report also stated that Syria's government still provides a haven and logistics support to several terrorist groups.

Syria has also supported the deadly Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization and Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad with "refuge and basing privileges in Lebanon's Beka'a Valley, under Syrian control," the report said.

A CIA report to Congress made public April 10 said Syria is a major developer of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and missile-delivery systems.