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US Has Cool Response to Syria's Criticism of Mideast Peace Efforts

The United States had a cool response Monday to interview remarks by Syrian President Bashar Assad in which he accused the Bush administration of neglecting the Syrian-Israeli track of the stalled Middle East peace process. U.S. officials say the Syrian leader should make good on pledges to shut down activities in Syria of groups violently opposed to peace efforts.

The interview by the Syrian leader in Monday's editions of the New York Times was notable for its length and conciliatory tone concerning Iraq and regional peace-making.

But officials here are skeptical about his key assertions that his government has shut down the cross-border flow of militants into Iraq, and closed operations in Syria of groups violently opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making.

In the interview, given front-page treatment by the New York Times, the Syrian leader called on the United States to use its influence to revive peace negotiations between his country and Israel, saying the absence of such efforts belies the Bush administration's stated commitment to visionary change in the Middle East.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration remains willing to help the Middle East parties make progress when they are ready to engage with each other on any of the tracks of the peace process.

He credited Syria with cooperation against al-Qaida terrorists but said the record of Mr. Assad's government on Iraq, and on groups opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, leaves much to be desired:

"When it comes to action against terrorism we've appreciated some of the things Syria has done with al-Qaida," he said. "But we felt there were other things that we felt Syria needed to do in terms of its relations with Iraq. There were other things particularly that we felt Syria needed to do to stop the activities of violent groups who are opposed to the peace process, the very people who are trying to set off bombs against Israel and against the Palestinian government. People who are trying to sabotage the peace process are still active in Syria."

Syrian authorities told Secretary of State Colin Powell on a visit in May that they would shut down the activities in Syria of Palestinian militant groups, but U.S. officials has since complained that the shuttering of the groups' offices was only cosmetic and that they continue to operate much as before.

In the Times interview, President Assad said Syria was no longer letting anti-American volunteers cross into Iraq at official border crossings, though he said he could not control infiltration across the 500 kilometer border.

He also denied sponsoring groups involved in terrorism, and said Syrian backing for Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas consisted of political support but not arms or money.

The Syrian leader said his government was ready without preconditions for new peace talks with Israel and said he saw no reason why, if the process was successful, that Syria should not have full normal relations with the Jewish state.

A senior U.S. diplomat said if Mr. Assad is serious, he should show it by directing his remarks to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and by "stopping the people who are stopping the peace process."