After a series of stern U.S. warnings, Syrian President Bashar Assad has ordered the offices of three of the most notorious Palestinian and Islamic extremist groups in this capital to be closed, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Saturday.
American officials reacted cautiously to the move -- a key U.S. demand -- because Assad has made promises in the past he has failed to fulfill. But Powell said that he had told the Syrian leader of other measures Washington expects the regime to take and that the Bush administration would be waiting for a response.
"They did closures. I expect them to do more with respect to access and appearances of various officials from some of these organizations," Powell said at a news conference in Lebanon after leaving Damascus to return to Washington.
"We provided some other suggestions to the Syrians that they are taking in advisement," he added. "I expect to hear back."
The three groups are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both militant Muslim groups linked to dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, an older secular group that rejects peace with the Jewish state. Damascus is the most important base for all three outside the Palestinian territories.
An end to Syrian support for militant groups is a top U.S. demand both to bolster the war on terrorism and to help with the new "road map" for Middle East peace. Damascus faces possible new U.S. economic or diplomatic penalties if it does not act.
During almost three hours of talks, Powell was said to have told Assad forthrightly that the United States does not understand why Syria believes ties with extremists are of any benefit now. He pointed out that the ouster of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq and the introduction of the Mideast "road map" are dramatically changing the regional dynamic, a senior State Department official told reporters accompanying the secretary.
On this count, the visit "made some progress," the official added, saying Assad understands the seriousness with which Washington regards these issues.
"He seemed on top of his brief and knowledgeable. We're waiting to hear what else he's going to do," the official said.
In the past, crackdowns by Syria have usually been temporary -- another reason U.S. officials were wary of overrating the visit. But the Damascus offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two most active groups in targeting Israel, were indeed eerily quiet Saturday as Powell met with Assad at the presidential palace. Between them, the two groups are held responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths in recent years.
At the Hamas office on narrow Nablus Street in scruffy Yarmouk, the oldest and largest Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, a nervous Hamas official described himself as only a "gatekeeper" and said the members of the leadership were unavailable because they were "out of the country."
A few blocks away, the perimeter of the Islamic Jihad office on Ailoot Street in Yarmouk was festooned with several anti-American posters as well as pictures of suicide bombers "martyred" in attacks against Israelis.
One poster featured a photograph of three wrapped corpses and declared, "American freedom supports terrorism." Another, urging an Arab boycott of American goods, proclaimed: "Every U.S. dollar we deal with today is a bullet in the head of an Arab citizen tomorrow."
But a man who described himself as a low-level Islamic Jihad official was unwilling to comment on Powell's visit. He said no one else was available to talk because "everyone's traveling," although he did offer that higher-level officials would be back "at the end of the week," and provided telephone numbers for follow-up contacts.
Unlike in the past, the Bush administration is pledging to hold Assad, who inherited power after his father Hafez Assad's death in 2000, accountable for his actions -- or inaction.
Washington insists that the closures of the militant group's offices be permanent and not be followed by a "reincarnation three days later under another name and another location," the senior State Department official said. "An office in an apartment is still an office."
The U.S. delegation "made it clear to him that we will be watching on all of these issues to see if they are serious in creating a better relationship with us on a new foundation and not just some incrementalism from the past," the official added.
At a news conference in Damascus on Saturday morning, Powell said he had come to Syria to pursue diplomacy and that that the issue of war or hostilities was "not on the table." But he also noted pointedly that President Bush has a "full range of political, economic, diplomatic and military options" to use to attain foreign policy goals.
During his brief stop in Beirut en route home, Powell pressed for further cooperation in curbing Middle East extremist groups by calling on President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to help end activities there by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim Party of God.
Hezbollah is backed by Iran and has been the most active extremist group along Israel's border since the mid-1980s. Washington wants the Lebanese army to extend its control over southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah is most active.
Until the rise of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah was the foremost threat to U.S. facilities and personnel in the region. A wall of the new U.S. Embassy in Beirut lists the names of 377 American and Lebanese employees killed between 1976 and 1995, most by Hezbollah cells and many in attacks on two embassies and a Marine compound in the 1980s.
But in what may be another reflection of changing times, U.N. officials in Lebanon say Hezbollah has been "quiet" in southern Lebanon over the last four months, even around the Shabaa Farms, the last border area still in dispute. Hezbollah's army has "melted away," said a U.N. official in the border area.
Since it ended its days as a clandestine movement 15 years ago, the Party of God has also become a powerful political party and now holds nine parliamentary seats in Lebanon besides providing social services and running its own media outlets. Two reporters from Hezbollah's Manar TV were at Powell's Beirut news conference.
Ibrahim Mousawi, the chief editor of Manar TV's English news bulletins, said the current upheaval has provoked rethinking.
"Hezbollah has always been wise in calculating the whole situation, and they see now there is a change in the region," he said.
Mousawi said Hezbollah did not oppose Powell's visit.
"Nobody is opposed to any diplomatic shuttles if the U.S. is genuine about its interest. But Lebanese won't accept the U.S. if it is just serving as a courier for Israeli demands," he said.
In his first Middle East visit in more than a year, Powell also talked with the leaders of both Syria and Lebanon on Saturday about the prospects of extending the new road map to include a comprehensive Middle East peace. America's top diplomat is scheduled to return to the region this week to launch talks on the road map with Israel and the Palestinians.
Wright was traveling with Powell, and Lamb reported from Beirut. Times staff writer Azadeh Moaveni in Damascus contributed to this report.