U.S. upbeat on Turkey, pessimistic about Syria, Iran

Monday, December 15, 2003

The United States has not determined a significant change in the strategic programs in Iran and Syria.

U.S. officials said despite repeated warnings by the Bush administration Iran and Syria continue to pursue missile and weapons of mass destruction programs. The officials said both Damascus and Teheran also support anti-U.S. activities in Iraq.

"Syria and Iran are being unhelpful," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a Washington audience on Friday. "Sometimes I understate for emphasis."

Rumsfeld said the administration remains concerned over the WMD programs in Iran and Syria despite pledges by both countries that they have peaceful intentions. The defense secretary said Iran has been pursuing a secret nuclear program for many years while Syria has chemical weapons programs and could be advancing to other WMD projects.

"The biological piece of it I would elevate as extremely worrisome," Rumsfeld said. "It is so easy to do, relatively. It doesn't require moving big things. It can be put together in relatively small rooms. And it can be moved across borders because of dual-use aspects of so many elements involved with biological warfare."

At least two civilians were killed and 13 injured in an accident during anti-aircraft firing manoeuvres near a nuclear power plant being built at the southern Iranian city of Bushehr, a local official told AFP Monday.

[In Iran, at least two people were killed and 13 others were injured during an live-fire anti-aircraft exercise meant to protect the nation's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Iranian officials said several anti-aircraft shells failed to explode and instead hit a vehicle in a residential area.]

On Friday, President George Bush signed the Syrian Accountability Act passed by a wide margin by the House and Senate. The new law imposes a virtual U.S. trade embargo on Damascus unless it ends support for groups on the State Department terrorism list and ends the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Bush, however, is likely to waive the provisions of the law for national security considerations.

Over the weekend, President Bashar Assad met a U.S. congressional delegation in Damascus and discussed Syria's harboring of Islamic insurgency groups as well as Iraq. Both sides expressed the hope that U.S.-Syrian relations would be improved.

"We haven't seen [cooperation] thus far, and we would like very much to see it," Rep. Christopher Cox, head of the eight-member delegation, said. "But we're certainly not going to be quiet about it."

Officials relayed their assessment of Iran and Syria as the European Union has been wooing both Middle East states. On Dec. 9, the EU and Syria signed an agreement that establishes a free trade area as well as a political dialogue between Brussels and Damascus. A smiliar agreement was reached between the EU and Iran.

At the same time, Rumsfeld said Turkey has been helpful to U.S. interests in the region as well as in efforts to stabilize Iraq. The secretary said Turkey has been effective in patrolling its border with Iraq and allowing supplies for U.S. military units in northern Iraq.

"Turkey is being helpful," Rumsfeld said. "We are using Turkey as an access point into the northern part of the country. They're doing a good job of guarding their border."

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