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Rice actions on Syria disputed

By RICHARD SALE, UPI Terrorism Correspondent   |   May 2, 2003 at 7:53 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, May 2 (UPI) -- Anna Perez, White House communications counselor, Friday sharply contested a United Press International report that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and political adviser Karl Rove shut down a Pentagon plan to expand the Iraqi ground war to Syria in closing days of combat.

"That never happened," she said. "It is a complete fabrication."

Perez also said there was no meeting on this subject at the White House with Israeli National Security Adviser Efrian Halevy and other officials.

UPI's report, published Friday afternoon, quoted unidentified administration officials as saying that a combination of Pentagon hawks and senior Israeli officials had been pressing the United States to expand the ground war to Syria. The officials spoke to UPI on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. strikes on Syria would have taken the form of brief across-the-border forays under "hot pursuit" rules of engagement, these sources said. They said contingency plans for such raids were being drawn up by Doug Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, after the approval of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

They added that the Pentagon press for action against Damascus was bolstered by the visit of Halevy, who traveled to Washington April 12-14 on the invitation of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

According to a Haaretz report of April 13, Halevy and another senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Weisglass, were visiting Washington to "suggest that the United States take care of Iran and Syria because of their support for terror and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction."

During their visit, the administration sources said, they had a meeting in the president's conference room, under a picture of Theodore Roosevelt, with top NSC officials and others with Rumsfeld and Rove in attendance.

In response to Halevy's entreaties for action, these sources said, Rice repeated an assertion that the White House did not want any further military campaigns for the rest of Bush's first term, according to the sources. They said Rumsfeld objected, and, at one point, turned to Rove and asked his opinion. Rove said the president agreed with Rice, and the meeting came to an end, the sources said.

Perez asserted Friday that this meeting didn't take place. She also said that to her knowledge, UPI had not attempted to contact participants.

Beginning Monday, UPI began calling White House officials to get the administration's position on the story. It placed a call to Sean McCormack, director of communications for the National Security Council, on several occasions and left voice messages. The calls were not returned.

UPI also read details of the allegations to a staff member on the NSC.

Another source with close knowledge of the matter told UPI: "The hawks didn't understand the emphasis had all changed: Everything was focused, not on the war any more, but on the president's re-election."

This official added that Rove had handled the elections of 2002 on the basis that "the American public knew the economy was a disaster, but the president asked them to put the war on terror first, and to vote Republican. And the public voted Republican. We think he felt any movement into Syria was pushing his luck."

The hawks proposed punitive raids because Syria and the United States already were bristling at each other, and the war simply took an unfortunate series of circumstances and brought them to a point of crisis, administration sources said.

In spite of Syria's heightened cooperation in the war on terror, with Syria giving the United States much useful information about al-Qaida, it was still supporting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the war.

In an April 13 Washington Post report, Powell issued a harsh warning to Syria against giving safe haven to Iraqi officials fleeing Baghdad. At a Pentagon press conference, Rumsfeld charged: "We are getting scraps of intelligence saying that Syria has been cooperating in facilitating the move (of senior members of Saddam Hussein's regime) from Iraq to Syria."

He warned that arms and supplies were moving into Iraq from Syria as well. Syria replied strongly that such charges were "baseless."

In an interview with The Washington Times, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was quoted as saying: "Syria is shipping killers into Iraq to kill Americans."

There was some truth to this, say serving and former U.S. intelligence officials.

Former senior CIA officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told UPI that U.S. combat forces in Iraq detained at least 700 Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters who came in buses over the Syrian border to fight against the U.S. coalition.

In one incident, a bus filled with Lebanese Hezbollah militants stopped in Iraq included two dozen Chechen terrorists, a former senior agency official said.

He added that another 100 members of Hezbollah are being detained at a camp at Tanaa in Iraq. After stern U.S. warnings, Syria tightened up scrutiny at checkpoints, but more Hezbollah and jihadis "simply went over the border" with weapons and explosives, he said.

"We were seeing some very disturbing signs of plans for anti-U.S. activity" on the part of the Hezbollah, another administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

(Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy secretary general, told UPI's Claude Salhani in an interview in Beirut last week, "We are not a threat to anyone." Qassem said that although now he felt Hezbollah was stronger politically and militarily than ever, it was not to attack anyone, "but only to defend ourselves.")

The hawks also saw Syria as the only remaining military threat to Israel, the sources said.

Former CIA Middle East expert Bob Baer told UPI that Syria possesses "a chemical arsenal that is much more lethal than anything Saddam has," and explained that "in Israeli strategic thought, the most dangerous threat is the geographically closest" -- which would mean Syria.

UPI previously reported that U.S. intelligence agencies believe that rogue elements of Syria's ruling elite have accepted millions of dollars in bribes in return for providing a safe haven for some of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, according to U.S. administration officials, both former and serving.

Chemical and biological weapons were taken by truck to a Syrian munitions compound near a military base near Khan Abu Shamet, about 50 miles northeast of Damascus, these officials told UPI.

The chief suspects in the operation are Bushra Assad, the sister of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and her husband, Gen. Assaf Chawkat, No. 2 in Syria's military intelligence organization, the Mukhabarat.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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