- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — The United States and Syria exchanged sharp words yesterday over what the Bush administration says is Damascus’ failure to fully honor its commitment to prevent terrorists, weapons and financing from crossing its border into Iraq.

The terse exchange came during a meeting between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, both of whom attended a major international conference on Iraq’s political future at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

Washington and Iraq’s interim government reached an agreement with Damascus last month on ways to patrol the porous Iraqi-Syrian border, which is a major entry point for militants and money headed for the Iraqi insurgency.

“We discussed that rather directly,” Mr. Powell told reporters shortly after the conference concluded, using diplomatic speak for a tense and argumentative, though respectful, conversation.

“The Syrians have taken some steps recently, but we think there is a lot they can do, and we are looking for greater opportunities to work with the Syrians,” he said.

“We’ll try to provide as much information to the Syrians about the activity that is taking place in Syria that they really need to get on top of and do something about,” he said.

The meeting yesterday was in stark contrast with Mr. Powell’s encounter with Mr. Sharaa at the United Nations in September, when the secretary said he sensed “a new attitude from the Syrians.”

“I think the Syrians are anxious to do more working with the coalition and especially, and more importantly, working with the Iraqi government,” Mr. Powell had said.

Even though yesterday’s conference, which was called by Iraq’s interim government, was supposed to overcome differences between more than 20 participating countries over the war, Syria’s disapproval of U.S. policy in Iraq was clear.

The Iraqi people, Mr. Sharaa said in his opening statement, “were humiliated, their dignity was largely compromised, as were their security, life and livelihood.”

Syria and France failed to persuade the other participants to set a deadline for the withdrawal of the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, winning agreement only that the force’s mandate “is not open-ended.”

In another snub to Paris, Iraqi opposition groups were not allowed to participate in the gathering of foreign ministers, as the French government had suggested.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier referred to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 from June, which says the presence of the foreign troops in Iraq will be reviewed in June 2005.

France interprets that as a deadline for pullout, but the United States and its allies disagree.

“Hostility toward foreign troops leads many Iraqis to distance themselves from the process. It is therefore vital to recall this deadline and state clearly that Iraqis will have full mastery over their country’s affairs, including over security and military issues,” Mr. Barnier said yesterday.

The conference backed the Iraqi interim government’s war against the insurgency, but participants failed to agree on ways to end it.

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