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US Changes Focus in Iraq As Major Combat Action Subsides - 2003-04-14

With the major combat operations in Iraq now over, U.S.-led coalition forces are focusing on other objectives, including the hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Baghdad's fugitive leaders. There are signs the hunt is shifting at least in part to neighboring Syria.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld insists he is not warning Syria that it faces possible U.S. military action.

Instead, Mr. Rumseld said, he is just stating what he calls the facts, when he notes Syria's chemical weapons program and its links to Iraq.

"Well, first, I would say that we have seen the chemical weapons tests in Syria over the past 12, 15 months; and second, that we have intelligence that shows that Syria has allowed Syrians and others to come across the border into Iraq - people armed and people carrying leaflets indicating that they'll be rewarded if they kill Americans and members of the coalition. And we have intelligence that indicates that some Iraqi people have been allowed into Syria, in some cases to stay, in some cases to transit," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Syria denies having chemical weapons or harboring fugitive Iraqi leaders.

But the hunt for those leaders, along with the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, is now taking center stage in Operation Iraqi Freedom, with major combat operations essentially finished.

The former science advisor to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, now in coalition hands, has denied Iraq had any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

But Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said he is not to be trusted. "You're talking about a senior player in a regime that took lying and deception and denial to new heights," she said.

General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff said coalition investigators have, so far, only visited a "very small" percentage of a very extensive list of suspect weapons sites in Iraq.

He said it will be a long process. "There are no positive results at this point. There are a number of samples that are still being tested. So, we don't have positive or negative either way. We have gone to some of the major sites, and have shipped samples back to the United States for detailed analysis," he said.

But could some of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, or the materials for them, have been shipped out of the country in recent weeks?

Spokeswoman Clarke said that has been a long-time Pentagon concern.

But asked specifically if defense officials have concrete information of any shipments, Ms. Clarke declines to answer.