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US Reiterates Concern About Iranian, Syrian Role in Iraq

The United States Wednesday expressed renewed concerns about Syrian and Iranian involvement in Iraq, accusing Iran in particular of what it calls "interference" in the Iraqi electoral process. Both interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar and Jordan's King Abdullah have expressed apprehension this week about Iran's intentions in Iraq.

The Bush administration has made no secret over what officials say has, at best, been a mixed response from Iran and Syria to U.S. concerns about their role in Iraq.

But the administration is now sharpening its criticism of both, Iran especially, following new complaints by the Iraqi and Jordanian leaders.

In interview remarks published Wednesday by the Washington Post, interim Iraqi President al-Yawar and Jordan's King Abdullah warned that Iran is trying to influence Iraq's January elections.

They said Iran is aiming to create a Sh'ite-dominated Islamic government in Baghdad that would shift the political balance between Sh'ites and Sunni Muslims in the region.

King Abdullah alleged that Iran is pumping money into Iraq's Sh'ite areas to build pro-Iranian sentiment, and that more than a million Iranians had crossed into Iraq, many intending to vote in the election.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli declined to provide specifics but said it is "fairly clear" to the United States that Iran is attempting to exercise influence in Iraq in a number of ways, including in the electoral process:

"Clearly there is a concern on our part about Iran's intentions, and Iran's activities as they relate to Iraq's internal affairs, and those include interference in the electoral process," he said. "Whether it be with the elections, whether it be with the insurgency, whether it be in terms of other political events in Iraq, we have been very outspoken in urging the government of Iran to live up to and honor its publicly-stated policy of supporting the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Iraq."

Mr. Ereli said Iran had made commitments to that effect as recently as November 23 when it joined some 20 other countries including the United States at a conference on Iraq's future at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Participants, among them also Syria, pledged to support the Iraqi interim government's struggle to halt violence and restore security before the elections set for January 30.

Mr. Ereli said despite the Syrian commitments at Sharm el-Sheikh, that country's relationship with the Iraqi insurgency continues to be "a concern" of the United States and a focus of U.S. diplomacy.

The spokesman said in a meeting at the Egyptian conference with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged some progress by Syria in sealing off its border with Iraq to would-be insurgents.

However he said Mr. Powell complained there were "political elements contributing to the insurgency" present and active in Syria, and that this was inconsistent with Syrian public commitments.

Mr. Ereli gave no details, but the Washington Post quoted U.S. officials said saying the United States has given Iraq a list of Iraq Baath party officials from the former regime of Saddam Hussein operating in Syria.

The spokesman said U.S. officials had seen no information of complicity between Iraqi Baathists and the Syrian government. But he said the United States looks to Syria to "act responsibly in this matter" so that it cannot be alleged that the Iraqi insurgency was being aided or directed from Syrian territory.

A State Department official later told reporters Syria needs to realize that it will not be in its long-term interest to tolerate pro-insurgent activity on its soil, and risk having a future Iraqi government "that looks at Syria as hostile."

The Syrian Ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, has flatly denied that the Iraqi Baathists are taking refuge in his country, saying reports to the contrary are an effort to create an "atmosphere of hostility" against his country.