The United States said Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad is disconnected from reality or "crazy" after he argued he is not responsible for killing thousands of protesters in his country.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner reiterated the U.S. view that Mr. Assad has lost legitimacy and should step down after the Syrian leader said in a rare interview that "only a crazy person" would kill his own people.
"It either says that he's completely lost any power that he had within Syria, that he's simply a tool or that he's completely disconnected with reality," Mr. Toner told reporters.
"It's either disconnection, disregard or, as he said, crazy. I don't know," Mr. Toner said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney earlier said that Mr. Assad's views were "not credible."
Mr. Assad said in an interview with ABC News that no government in the world would kill its people "unless it's led by a crazy person" and said he did not "own" the security forces carrying out the violence.
Apparently trying to distance himself from violence that the U.N. says has killed 4,000 people since March, Mr. Assad laughed off a question about whether he feels any guilt.
"I did my best to protect the people," he told ABC's Barbara Walters during an interview at the presidential palace in the Syrian capital, Damascus. "You feel sorry for the life that has been lost, but you don't feel guilty when you don't kill people."
The interview offered a rare glimpse into the character of the 46-year-old Mr. Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000.
Mr. Assad, who commands Syria's armed forces, has sealed off the country to most outsiders while clinging to the claim that the uprising is the work of foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the authoritarian political system.
The United Nations and others dismiss that entirely, blaming the regime for widespread killings, rape and torture.
Witnesses and activists inside Syria describe brutal repression, with government forces firing on unarmed protesters and conducting terrifying, house-to-house raids in which families are dragged from their homes in the night.
"They're not my forces," Mr. Assad responded when asked if Syrian troops had cracked down too hard on protesters. "They are military forces [who] belong to the government. I don't own them. I'm president. I don't own the country."
He said some Syrian troops may have behaved badly, but they faced punishment if so.
He also said most of the people who died in the unrest were his own supporters and troops, slain by terrorists and gangsters - an allegation disputed by most outside observers.
The comment that Syrian troops are "not my forces" raised flags in Syria and abroad because it suggests Mr. Assad might ultimately try to lay the blame on his subordinates, analysts said.