- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria Syria has banned Iraqis without visas from entering the country, airline sources confirmed yesterday, an apparent effort to counter U.S. charges that it is sheltering former members of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The policy change was another sign that Syria seeks to ease tensions with Washington ahead of an expected visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
After days of harsh charges from the Bush administration, U.S. officials said Thursday that Syria was reacting positively to complaints that it harbors members of the ousted Iraqi government, turning some Iraqis away at the border and possibly preparing to quietly expel others. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Washington also has accused Damascus of having chemical weapons and sponsoring terrorism both of which Syria denies.
Syria quietly issued a directive Monday banning the entry of any Iraqi who did not hold a visa. Previously, visas could be obtained at airports or border crossings upon arrival.
The new rules became apparent Friday after two Iraqis were prevented in Cairo from boarding a Syrian Airlines flight to Damascus because they did not have visas. Syrian airport officials confirmed the rule change yesterday.
Lebanon started enforcing similar rules shortly before the war began March 20, security officials at the Beirut airport said.
Also yesterday, a top Lebanese official said he was optimistic that Mr. Powell's planned visit would help ease the crisis.
"I don't see Powell's visit to Syria as part of exerting more pressure on Damascus, but rather as part of a dialogue, which is the best way to … defuse tension and eliminate misunderstanding," Information Minister Michel Samaha said.
The State Department has not set any date for Mr. Powell's proposed visit to the region.
Syria has been the main power broker in Lebanon since 1990, when Syrian forces intervened to end a 15-year civil war. It still has 20,000 troops in the country and wields enormous influence over the government's decision-making.
Mr. Samaha said any U.S. economic or diplomatic sanctions imposed on Syria as a result of the tensions also were likely to have negative effects in Lebanon.
In another conciliatory gesture, the government-owned Al-Thawra newspaper ran an unusually moderate editorial yesterday, saying Syria is cooperating with the United States on many levels and trying to bring stability to the region. It referred to Syria's recent proposal for a U.N. resolution on eliminating biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in the region.
The U.N. resolution was aimed at Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, three members of the U.S. Congress arrived in Damascus for talks today with President Bashar Assad on the "road map" Middle East peace plan prepared jointly by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

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