- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

NEW YORK — Syria agreed yesterday to step up cooperation with the United States and Iraq along the Iraq-Syria border, a major entry point for terrorists and money headed for the Iraqi insurgency.

The agreement — raising prospects for a thaw in U.S.-Syrian relations — was reached during a meeting between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara at the United Nations.

“We discussed … their actions along the Syrian-Iraq border and the need for all of us to do more, and I think the Syrians are anxious to do more working with the coalition and especially, and more importantly, working with the Iraqi government,” Mr. Powell told reporters after the meeting.

“It’s a tough military mission and a tough political mission, but I sense a new attitude from the Syrians.” he said. “But, of course, it all depends on actions, not just attitudes, so we’ll be working closely with them.”

The secretary said he expected Iraq’s prime minister, Iyad Allawi, to visit Damascus in the near future to discuss Iraqi-Syrian cooperation.

“I hope that the Syrians now understand the need for all of us to do as much as we can in a tripartite manner — Syria, the Iraqi interim government and the coalition — to stop illicit, improper traffic across that border,” Mr. Powell said.

He also praised Syria’s plans to redeploy about 3,000 of its almost 20,000 troops in Lebanon from the outskirts of Beirut closer to the Syria-Lebanon border.

“We have noted a redeployment of some Syrian troops coming out of places where they haven’t come out of previously — camps south of Beirut — and so I think this is a positive step, and we took note of it,” he said.

Mr. Powell’s comments were the most positive that have been heard in years from the Bush administration on Syria, which remains on the State Department’s blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.

The secretary had high hopes for a change of heart in Syria when he visited Damascus in May 2003, soon after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, but his meeting with President Bashar Assad was a disappointment.

Since then, the Bush administration repeatedly has accused Mr. Assad’s government of sheltering militant groups and refusing to come clean about its programs for weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Powell cited those two items yesterday when he said Washington still has “issues” to resolve with Syria, in spite of its new willingness to cooperate on Iraq.

He said at a joint press conference that he and Mr. Shara had “a good, open, candid” and “rather positive discussion.”

Mr. Shara declined to discuss the substance of the talks, saying only that the two had had “a good meeting.”

The two countries first formally broached the subject of military cooperation in Iraq 12 days ago, when a U.S. delegation led by William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, met with Mr. Assad in Damascus.

“They discussed, among other things, practical ways in which our military experts might cooperate with Syrian and Iraqi counterparts” on militants crossing into Iraq from Syria, a State Department official said.

Another meeting of U.S. and Syrian military officials is planned for later this month, he said.

It took the State Department some time to clarify what exactly Mr. Burns and Mr. Assad discussed regarding actions along the Iraq border.

On Sunday, Time magazine reported that Mr. Assad had expressed interest in military cooperation with U.S. and other coalition forces.

The Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, confirmed that report to United Press International on Monday. But that same day, a senior State Department official said joint action was not specifically discussed.

“We are looking for Syria to take certain action to protect the border. That action has not been taken yet,” the official said.

Although Mr. Powell welcomed the Syrian troop movements out of the Beirut area, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remained deeply suspicious.

“We don’t, at this point, see a change in Syria’s position,” he said on Israeli radio. “Syria is under U.S. pressure these days because it is helping Iraqi terrorists. … They have an interest in taking steps that will take off or weaken the pressure.”

Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares defended the presence of Syrian troops in his country, saying they were there at his government’s request.

Mr. Fares’ government also announced the arrest of the top al Qaeda operative in Lebanon, saying he and another Lebanese suspect had plotted suicide attacks on Western embassies and recruited insurgents to fight in Iraq.

Interior Minister Elias Murr identified the two key suspects as Ahmed Salim Mikati and Ismail Mohammed al-Khatib. He said they had accomplices, including Lebanese and Palestinians.

Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum told reporters Mr. al-Khatib was “the head of al Qaeda organization in Lebanon.”

Officials in Beirut told wire agencies that at least one of the suspects had contact with Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant whose group beheaded two American hostages in Iraq this week.

Officials cited the arrests as evidence of Lebanon’s cooperation in the war on terrorism and thanked Syria and Italy for their help in breaking up the plot.

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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