US challenges Syria on support for Iraq


US President George W. Bush has repeated allegations that Syria, whose bitter opposition to the war in Iraq has outraged Washington, may be harbouring Iraqi officials or chemical weapons.

Asked if the charges, a regular theme in recent weeks from hard-line members of the US administration, could lead to war, Bush told reporters: "I think that we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria, for example. And we will - each situation will require a different response and, of course, we're - first things first.

"We're here in Iraq now. And the second thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation. And I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation," he said yesterday.

Earlier, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Syrian fighters had been killed or captured by US forces in Iraq, but declined to say what Washington might do if Saddam Hussein were found to have fled across the Syrian border.

"The last thing I would do would be to discuss that," he said in a television interview, stressing that if the missing Iraqi president turned up in the neighbouring state, it would show that "Syria would have made an even bigger mistake."

"The (Syrian) government is making a lot of bad mistakes, a lot of bad judgments in my view," Rumsfeld said in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Rumsfeld has in recent days repeatedly charged that Damascus has not only voiced support for Saddam's fallen government, but has been helping senior Iraqi leaders enter Syria to stay or move on to other countries.

But on Sunday, Rumsfeld also said Syrian nationals had been actively involved in fighting against US forces, including many in Baghdad.

"There are a number of non-Iraqis who are in the country, particularly in Baghdad we find ... A lot from Syria, most from Syria it appears," he said.

Asked if they were involved in fighting, Rumsfeld said, "Absolutely. In firefights, a lot of them got killed last night."