The U.S. government is investigating intelligence reports that Iraq sent weapons to Syria to hide them from U.N. inspectors and coalition troops in Iraq, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control, also told a House International Relations subcommittee that Syria is developing medium-range missiles with help from North Korea and Iran that could be fired in nerve gas attacks hundreds of miles from Syria’s borders.
He testified in open and closed sessions that Syria continues to take hostile actions against U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq by permitting sympathizers of Saddam Hussein to enter Iraq to kill Americans.
“Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war, and is still doing so,” Mr. Bolton said.
“September 11, we were reminded of the need to remain steadfast in recognizing emerging threats to our security,” Mr. Bolton said. “In Syria, we see expanding [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities and continued state sponsorship of terrorism.”
Mr. Bolton said that “we cannot allow the world’s most dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes, and will work tirelessly to ensure this is not the case for Syria.”
Syria has purchased nuclear goods that indicate it may use a Chinese-made reactor to build nuclear arms, he said.
Also, the Syrians are working on offensive biological weapons, he said.
Mr. Bolton stated that Syria has several hundred Scud and SS-21 short-range missiles and has built a longer-range Scud D with help from North Korea. The Scud D has a range of some 310 miles and Syria test-fired one in 2000.
Some of the missiles can be outfitted with deadly nerve gas warheads, Mr. Bolton said.
During a closed-door session, Mr. Bolton showed the committee a map highlighting the ranges of Syrian missiles and future missiles, including a version of the North Korean Nodong that has a range of 620 miles, enough to hit targets throughout the Middle East.
Syria has one of the most advanced chemical weapons programs in the Arab world that includes the nerve agent sarin and the more deadly nerve gas known as VX, Mr. Bolton said.
“Syria’s missiles are mobile and can reach much of Israel from positions near their peacetime garrisons and portions of Iraq, Jordan and Turkey from launch sites well within the country,” Mr. Bolton said in his prepared testimony.
“Damascus is pursuing both solid- and liquid-propellant missile programs and relies extensively on foreign assistance in these endeavors,” he said.
Mr. Bolton was scheduled to present the testimony on Syrian weapons programs last month, but elements of the U.S. intelligence community blocked the testimony to avoid offending Damascus, which has established a limited liaison program with the CIA.
Mr. Bolton told the subcommittee that his testimony yesterday was approved by the U.S. intelligence and policy communities.
Asked whether he favored changing the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, Mr. Bolton said “our preference is to solve these problems by peaceful and diplomatic means.”
Regarding reports that Iraq hid weapons in Syria, Mr. Bolton said: “We have seen these reports, reviewed them carefully, and see them as cause for concern.”
“Thus far, we have been unable to confirm that such transfers occurred,” he said.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he has seen “snippets of information over time” about weapons transfers from Iraq to Syria.
“We know they buried MiG airplanes,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters. “We know they buried a lot of things. And we know in the prior war they flew their planes into Iran, for example.”
Other U.S. officials said numerous intelligence reports from a variety of sources indicate that the transfers of Iraqi weapons took place.
Some of the reports have been in recent weeks, the officials said.
However, many intelligence analysts are reluctant to make judgments on the intelligence because of the recent controversy over Iraq’s purported attempts to buy uranium ore from Niger, the officials said.
Syria’s government continues to deny that any weapons were transferred.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, which held the hearing, said the reports of Iraqi arms shipments to Iraq suggest biological or chemical weapons were sent there.
“There are disputes between agencies,” she said in an interview. “No matter what the view, the answer is we really don’t know the extent to which this happened. On the other hand, nobody’s saying it didn’t happen.”
Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said the hearing was held on legislation she is co-sponsoring that would lead to sanctions on Syria for its weapons of mass destruction programs and support for terrorism.
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, said the testimony appeared to be a warning to Syria.
“I think the administration is sending a trial balloon to the Syrians to take a look over the border and see what happens to the people who don’t listen to us,” Mr. Ackerman said in an interview.