- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

WASHINGTON, April 18 (UPI) — A U.S. State Department official declared Friday that Secretary of State Colin Powell has no plans to visit Syria nor to launch a Middle East peace trip anytime soon.

Although a Powell trip to Damascus and the region had been addressed earlier by a State Department spokesman, the official told United Press International Friday "there has been no decision on specific travels by the secretary at this point."

Arab leaders have called on the administration of President George W. Bush to publish a U.S.- and European-backed plan to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The purported Syria leg of the trip was seen as an effort to engage a country the United States has accused of harboring Iraqi officials and chemical weapons.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters at a Washington briefing that the secretary would "expect to travel to the region … in the near future, I guess I would say. And as part of a trip like that, he would expect to stop in Damascus."

The spokesman did not pinpoint when the visit would take place, but indicated that it would be part of a broader trip designed to spur the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Boucher was commenting on an interview published on Wednesday in which Powell was quoted as saying he plans to travel to Syria for holding "very candid and straightforward discussions" with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

Reports of the trip, coming amid increasing tensions with Syria, drew worldwide attention and was interpreted as a U.S. diplomatic offensive to address tension with a country that is one of seven on the State Department list of states that support terrorism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, Syria had made cooperative efforts in Bush administration's war on terror and was not included as part of the now-famous "axis of evil" in the president's address in January 2002.

But in the last 10 days Washington has publicly reprimanded Syria for hiding leaders of the former Baath ruling party who have fled Iraq and says the fallen Iraqi regime has smuggled some of its weapons of mass destruction to Syria.

The Bush administration also says Syria supplied military equipment to the Iraqi forces while they were fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq earlier this month.

Washington also has urged Syria to stop supporting militant Palestinian and Lebanese groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The Bush administration views these groups as an impediment to its efforts to forge a peaceful settlement between the Palestinians and Israel.

But on Friday, the State Department insisted the secretary did not say there was any imminent trip, either to Syria or to other Middle Eastern countries, and blamed the media for overinterpreting his remarks.

The official said that when the secretary spoke of traveling to Syria, he was "speaking in general terms. … He has traveled to Syria in the past and intended to do so in the future but he did not say there's an imminent trip."

According to the spokesman, Powell did say in his interview that the administration has had "a very vigorous diplomatic exchange with the Syrians through our ambassador in Damascus," adding that Powell had recently met with the Syrian foreign minister in New York as well as speaking with him on the phone."

"The secretary noted, I have been to Syria twice and I would expect to travel to Syria again," the spokesman said.

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