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War Of Words Over Syria

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Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the United States is not contemplating military action in Syria, but that didn't stop Iran and Israel from squaring off Wednesday over the potential for war there.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said his country will support Syria if it is attacked. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Syria has a "very large arsenal" of chemical weapons and is trying to produce biological weapons.

However, Sharon said the greatest threat to Israel is what he described as the flawed judgment of the Syrian leader, Bashar Assad.

"Syria is dangerous because it has chemical weapons and because it is making efforts to produce biological weapons and because there is a terrorist force that is under its control — the Hezbollah," Sharon said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

"Mostly, it (Syria) is dangerous because it has little ability to assess situations," Sharon said, adding that there was no immediate danger of a Syrian attack on Israel.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was "concerned that recent statements directed at Syria should not contribute to a wider destabilization in a region already affected heavily by the war in Iraq."

Having declared war against terror worldwide, singled out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil," and then gone to war with Iraq, President Bush has raised fears abroad, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, that the world's only superpower would use its muscle freely against dictatorial regimes.

Accusations that Syria provided Iraq with war materiel, gave haven to senior Iraqi and Baath party officials and permitted Syrian fighters to join the war against the U.S.-led coalition fueled those apprehensions.

Damascus officials have denied the allegations.

Administration officials and advisers have adopted increasingly tough rhetoric towards Syria in recent weeks. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rejected Syria's denials on Monday, calling it a rogue nation. According to USA Today, a U.S. official claimed Tuesday that Iraq was harboring a former Iraqi spy chief, Farouk Hijazi.

Powell himself has warned of "consequences" if Syria does not change its ways. He toned down his approach on Tuesday.

Powell renewed the accusations against Syria, but he rejected any suggestion the administration had a list of countries against whom it might send troops again. "There is no list," he said.

"Iraq was a unique case, where it wasn't just a matter of a dictator being there," Powell said at a news conference with foreign reporters. "There is no war plan to go and attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values."

"Democratic values have to ultimately come from within a society and within a nation," he said.

Syria does not appear to be anticipating any U.S. attack. Its forces are arrayed against traditional enemy Israel and have made no move toward the Iraqi border, said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Syria had been helpful quietly in the war against the al Qaeda terror network and there was no evidence that help was abating. Syria was an ally in the first Gulf war, and also may have refused sanctuary to Abu Abbas, the terrorist mastermind captured in Baghdad this week.

In the first official Iranian comment on U.S. claims that Syria was hosting members of Saddam Hussein's regime, Khatami said the rhetoric was a "bluff" and that Iran would support Syria if attacked.

"Syria is on the front line against Zionist pressures, defending the cause of the Palestinian nation, freedom and peace in the region. We will defend Syria but it doesn't mean we will engage in military confrontation," he said. He also said Iran will not recognize a U.S.-installed interim administration in Iraq.

Repeating comments made by Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz earlier in the week, Sharon said the United States should use economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure to force Syria to stop supporting Hezbollah and to cut its ties with Iran. In addition, Sharon said the United States should force Syria to oust Palestinian militant groups from Damascus.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Tuesday that U.S. forces in Iraq had reported that they had shut down a pipeline that carried oil from Iraq to Syria in violation of U.N. sanctions.

"Whether it's the only one, and whether that has completely stopped the flow of oil between Iraq and Syria, I cannot tell you," Rumsfeld told reporters. "We do not have perfect knowledge."