- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria — Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said yesterday that Syria has improved security along its border with Iraq but needs to do more to keep armed supporters of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from sneaking across.

Mr. Armitage arrived in Syria for talks with officials on the country’s suspected role in the insurgency in Iraq and the infiltration of fighters across the border.

“Syria has made some real improvements in recent months on border security. But we all need to do more, particularly on the question of former regime elements participating in activities in Iraq, going back and forth from Syria,” Mr. Armitage told reporters in the capital, Damascus.

Mr. Armitage and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa.

Mr. Assad discussed “the situation in Iraq and the political process there, including the elections,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Measures to combat the movement of insurgents have taken on increasing importance as the Jan. 30 national elections in Iraq approach. The insurgents are using violence to try to disrupt the vote for a constitutional assembly.

Washington and Baghdad have said that key support for the insurgency was coming from a half brother of Saddam Hussein and Ba’ath Party leaders based in Syria.

President Bush has warned Syria against “meddling” in the internal affairs of Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said he had “adequate and accurate information” about Iraqis planning attacks from Syria and has sent a letter to Mr. Assad asking the Syrian authorities to hand over “wanted elements and those accused of planning and executing” attacks.

Mr. Armitage said he had stressed to the Syrian leadership the “absolute importance” of the Iraqi elections and the need to have full Iraqi participation.

“I believe I found here in Syria the same view,” he said.

U.S. relations with Syria also have been strained over Damascus’ involvement in neighboring Lebanon. Washington imposed sanctions on Syria earlier this year under an act accusing Damascus of seeking weapons of mass destruction, a charge Syria denies.

In September, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution introduced by the United States and France calling on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and dismantle the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Mr. Armitage said he had called for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, and warned Damascus against interfering in parliamentary elections to be held in Lebanon in May.

Syria, with about 14,000 troops stationed in Lebanon, is the main power broker in that country. There have been growing international and local calls in Lebanon for Syria to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.

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