- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 16 (UPI) — Syria has closed its border with Iraq, has not provided refuge to any fleeing Iraqi officials and can live without Iraqi oil, a Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday.

Buthaina Shaaban, head of the Syrian Foreign Ministry's Information Department, also called for supporting a draft resolution to be submitted by Damascus to the U.N. Security Council to make the Middle East "a zone free" of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction.

In an apparent effort to play down mounting U.S. threats against Syria, Shaaban said dialogue with Washington was continuing and that Damascus was ready to cooperate. She welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to come and visit Damascus.

"We don't see that things are so bad," she told reporters in Damascus. "Syria always understood the climate in the region. If Syria has its say in what's going on in the region, you will have a more stable, secure and peaceful region. Perhaps, it's about time that Syria is listened to."

She appeared confident that "the international atmosphere is extremely positive toward Syria because they know Syria has long worked for peace and stability."

She refused to compare the Syrian Baath Party to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime, saying: "No two regimes could be more different. The difference is so striking. Syria never had good relations with the Iraqi regime."

Shaaban affirmed that the Syrian-Iraqi borders "are closed except for medical help through the Red Cross."

"Iraqis can go to Iraq but cannot come to Syria. This is the decision of the Syrian government," she said. "We will never allow any symbol of the Iraqi regime (into Syria). When we say the borders are closed, it means they are closed and when we say we do not allow any symbol of Iraqi regime to come here, it means that we did not allow any."

She defended her country against U.S. accusations that it allowed Arab volunteers to cross from Syria into Iraq to fight alongside Saddam's forces, saying Damascus tried to "limit their going but there was very high national and Islamic feelings … and even many human shields from Britain and the U.S. went to Iraq to support the Iraqi people."

Commenting on U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's announcement Tuesday night that oil flowing through the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline was stopped, Shabaan said: "We lived without the Iraqi pipeline for 20 years. We can live without it for 20 years. It's not a problem."

When asked about the need that Syria make internal changes to secure more democracy and freedom, Shabaa said, "Internal changes are to be decided by the Syrians" at their own pace.

On Washington's accusations that Syria possesses chemical weapons, she said: "If the U.S. and other parties are worried that WMD, nuclear and biological weapons could get into the hands of terrorists, we would like this to be materialized by supporting a draft resolution approved by the Arab group at the U.N. and which will be submitted very soon to the Security Council."

She explained that the draft resolution meant to "make the Middle East a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons."

Such a resolution specifically targets Israel. Syria and other countries have repeatedly accused Israel of being the only country in the region to possess a nuclear arsenal.

Shaaban dismissed accusations that Syria was harboring and supporting terrorist groups and said Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas — which are based in Damascus — only run "media offices and they have the right for freedom of self-expression."

She said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's accusations that the Palestinian groups were "terrorists do not make them terrorists as they are fighting occupation."

She accused Israel of being behind mounting U.S. threats against Syria because it wanted to harm Syrian-U.S. and U.S.-Arab relations. She emphasized that while Syria always wanted peace, Sharon "always wants to initiate more wars."

Shaaban defended Syria's condemnation of the U.S. war on Iraq, saying: "Although the war is over, the situation is not over in Iraq and many things are going to be unleashed."

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