Escalating confrontation as US says Syria has chemical weapons

 

In an escalating confrontation, the US accused Syria yesterday of possessing chemical weapons, charged that its nationals had engaged US troops in combat in Baghdad and warned it against allowing senior Iraqi leaders to escape through its territory.

President George W. Bush stopped short of threatening US action against Damascus, but his comments were clearly intended as a warning to Syria to halt support for the deposed Iraqi regime.

"The Syrian government needs to co-operate with the United States and our coalition partners. It must not harbour any Baathists, any military officials who need to be held to account for their tenure in Iraq," Mr Bush told reporters at the White House.

Syrian nationals have been killed in fighting in Baghdad and others have been taken prisoner, said the US Defence Secretary, Mr Donald Rumsfeld, who said Syrians had entered Iraq by the busload. Mr Rumsfeld also reiterated charges that senior Iraqis have escaped to Syria, and that some have stayed there while others have moved on to other countries.

"We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," Mr Bush said without elaborating. US intelligence has previously reported that Syria possesses stockpiles of the nerve gas sarin and is believed to have an active biological weapons programme.

Mr Rumsfeld said earlier that the US had reports that some of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction may have been sent to a neighbouring country, but would not identify the country.

"Each situation will require a different response," Mr Bush said. "First things first. We're here in Iraq now." The Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, warned Damascus it would be "very unwise if, suddenly, Syria becomes a haven for all these people who should be brought to justice, who are trying to get out of Baghdad".

"The government's making a lot of bad mistakes, a lot of bad judgment calls, in my view, and they're associating with the wrong people," Mr Rumsfeld said on CBS television.

Syrian officials emphatically denied it was harbouring members of the regime or had weapons of mass destruction, and said Washington was seeking to divert attention from the chaos following the collapse of the Iraqi regime.

"We will not only accept the most rigid inspection regime, we will welcome it heartily," said Mr Imad Moustapha, from the Syrian embassy in the US. Mr Rumsfeld declined to comment on a report in the Washington Times that two top Iraqi scientists involved in its weapons of mass destruction programme had taken refuge in Syria. Asked what if Iraqi Saddam Hussein turned up alive in Syria, Mr Rumsfeld said: "Then I think Syria would have made an even bigger mistake." Targeted in at least two "decapitation" air strikes during the 23-day-old war, his fate remains a mystery. Gen Tommy Franks, the commander of the coalition forces, said US forces have samples of Saddam's DNA.

He said he believed it would be possible to identify Saddam, "unless remains were removed" at the site of recent heavy bombings in a residential area where Saddam was believed to be meeting with his top intelligence officials.

Mr Rumsfeld said that if the Iraqi leader is alive, he might try to escape the country. "He's done it once before," he said.