U.S. calls for Syrian pullout, Congress weighs sanctions

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

WASHINGTON The House of Representatives is preparing legislation that would impose an embargo as well as other sanctions on Syria as early as this week unless Syria ends its occupation of neighboring Lebanon.

The hearing in the House International Relations Committee is expected to disclose the Bush administration's position on the proposed sanctions. The State Department, which fought off a similar effort in 2002, has urged the White House to oppose the Syria Accountability Act.

Meanwhile, Israeli and U.S. diplomatic sources said the Bush administration relayed a message to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad that called for a rapid military withdrawal from Lebanon, Middle East Newsline reported. The message was quoted as saying that Syria has failed to adjust to the new strategic situation in the Middle East in wake of the fall of the Saddam regime in Iraq, Syria's neighbor and once strategic ally.

So far, the bill has garnered the support of a majority of the House and Senate. The Syria Accountability Act has 238 backers in the House and 63 in the Senate.

The bill also calls on Syria to halt development of weapons of mass destruction and the import of oil from Iraq. The hearing could take place as early as Tuesday.

On the eve of the expected congressional hearing, Syria has redeployed troops within Lebanon. Lebanese sources and Arab reports said Damascus withdrew 1,000 troops from positions in northern Lebanon and south of Beirut.

The Syrian troops were relocated to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon near the Syrian border. Western diplomatic sources said Syria has about 15,000 soldiers in Lebanon, not including the Bekaa Valley, which is mostly a closed military zone.

The latest Syrian troop movement was described as the completion of a deployment that began in January 2003. The sources said the redeployment was apparently delayed by the U.S.-led war in Iraq and concern over anti-Syrian unrest.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that U.S. helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are regularly crossing into Syria to stop the smuggling of people and goods over the border with Iraq. The newspaper said U.S. forces routinely fire on suspected smugglers who attempt to cross the Iraqi-Syrian border. Syria's military has not returned fire, a Syrian commander was quoted as saying.

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