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Pressure on Damascus Grows

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration is publicly lashing out at Syria now to capitalize on a “new environment” in the Arab world and because President Bashar Assad may not have enough control over his own government to prevent Iraqi officials from crossing the border into his country, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Damascus has often been on the precipice of a showdown with Washington over ties to extremist groups, conflict with Israel, human rights violations and the alleged pursuit of chemical weapons. But with Saddam Hussein no longer in power in Baghdad, Syria has taken Iraq’s place as the Arab nation with the most unacceptable practices for Washington, say U.S. officials and regional experts.

Signaling Washington’s seriousness, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that U.S. troops have shut down a pipeline that had transported up to 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil into Syria daily for resale, in violation of U.N. sanctions against Hussein’s government.

The policy shift does not mean that the United States has drawn up a list of countries to target for leadership change, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Tuesday. “There is no war plan right now to go attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values,” he said at a news conference of foreign journalists.

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Powell said Washington had warned the Assad regime that granting a haven to fleeing Iraqi officials would not be in Syria’s interest. He called on Damascus to return them to their homeland to “face justice that will be meted out by the Iraqi people.”

Iraq’s most important nuclear scientist, Jafar Jafar, passed through Syria last week and later surrendered in an unnamed Arab country, where he is being debriefed by U.S. officials.

And a U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday that Farouk Hijazi, a senior Iraqi intelligence operative who served most recently as his country’s ambassador to Tunisia, is among the Hussein loyalists who have fled to Syria.

“I think he probably went there in the last 24 hours,” the official said, citing what he described as credible intelligence reports from the region. But Hijazi is believed to have traveled to Syria from Tunisia or another country in the Middle East, and was not in Iraq during the war, the official said.

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Because of his position as an ambassador, Hijazi has diplomatic status, the official said. He does not appear on the playing card-style list of Iraqi officials most wanted by U.S. forces, but the official said that was because the cards depict those likely to be found in Iraq. “It doesn’t mean he’s not a bad actor,” the official said.

Hijazi is reported to have headed external operations for the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service, in the mid-1990s. He is believed to have met with Osama bin Laden in 1998.

The official said intelligence indicates that other Iraqi officials are hiding in Syria, including some whose faces appear on the cards. The official declined to identify the others. Asked whether the Iraqi dictator was among them, the official said, “Nobody whose last name is Hussein.”

In the past, Syria has provided refuge to a range of extremists -- Palestinians, Turks, Lebanese, even former Nazis and a renegade U.S. intelligence agent -- and denied doing so, according to Henri J. Barkey, a former member of the State Department policy planning staff who is now a professor of international relations at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University.

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President Bush and other members of his war council also decided to go public in the criticism of Syria because diplomatic channels have failed to prod Damascus into action, U.S. officials say.

For two years, Assad has failed to come through on promises to shut down the oil pipeline, beginning with a pledge made to Powell two years ago. And while Syria has been helpful in tracking terrorists connected with Al Qaeda, it has continued its ties to extremist groups such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Washington has concluded that Assad does not have total control of his government, in Damascus, so the public warnings are designed to target a wide swath of Syrian society, including military and intelligence officials as well as political and commercial interests engaged in rogue activities, officials say.

“Damascus wasn’t as bad as Baghdad. But by process of elimination, Syria now ranks as the worst Arab country in terms of its ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism and human rights abuses,” Barkey said.

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The United States has been increasingly frustrated since Assad rose to power following the death of his father, Hafez Assad, a former general, in June 2000. The younger Assad, who was sworn in five weeks later, has proved to be a weaker president who appears unable to rein in many sectors of Syrian society, U.S. officials say.

“Bashar is not his father. He doesn’t have the cult of personality or control over all branches of government, particularly the military and intelligence networks. He doesn’t have his finger on commercial interests in the country either,” said a well-placed U.S. official who requested anonymity.

“In the past, you couldn’t make a deal with anyone in government unless it had [Hafez] Assad’s approval. That’s not true anymore. So some of the problems may be actions by independent folks, even challengers to [Bashar] Assad, who are emerging as their own political and economic authorities,” the official added.

Assad inherited many of the top government officials from his father’s era. Members of the minority Alawite sect of Islam, the Assads have stayed in power since 1970 by playing rival interests within the Sunni majority against one another. But the younger Assad has not played the political game well and is often beholden to the intelligence and military blocs his father created, U.S. officials say.

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The United States is using its moment of strength and Assad’s inexperience and weakness to play for its own gains, experts and U.S. officials say. On Tuesday, Powell underscored the need for Syria to act on several fronts or face punitive action.

“We hope that Syria understands now that there is a new environment in the region ... and that Syria will reconsider its policies of past years and understand that there are better choices it can make than the choices it has made in the past,” he said.

Washington is subtly wielding the physical and psychological edge it achieved from the collapse of Baghdad and Tikrit, Hussein’s two strongholds, without resistance, even from his most loyal troops.

“The administration is trying to scare the living daylights out of Bashar,” Barkey said. “The quick U.S. victory certainly gives those kinds of regimes, who rely on very special loyalties, the willies. You can hear them saying, ‘There by the grace of God go I.’ ”

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The United States hopes that Damascus will also see the light on weapons of mass destruction. The Syrians have drawn notice for years in the CIA’s regular reports to Congress about the spread of the deadliest forms of weaponry.

“They’ve had an interest in chemical weapons for decades,” the official said.

In an unclassified report to Congress released last week, the CIA said Damascus has a stockpile of sarin, a nerve agent, and is trying to develop “more toxic and persistent nerve agents.”

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Times staff writers Greg Miller and Bob Drogin contributed to this report.


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