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US Repeats Call for Syria to Tighten Border with Iraq - 2004-04-16

The State Department says the United States has again urged Syria to tighten its border with Iraq to prevent insurgents bent on attacking U.S.-led coalition forces from crossing into that country. U.S. officials say Syria has taken some steps in that direction, but could do more.

The State Department has confirmed delivery of the message from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Syrian President Bashar Assad, first reported by the official Syrian media on Thursday.

According to spokesman Richard Boucher, the oral message, given to Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara by U.S. ambassador Margaret Scobey, asserts that it is in Syria's own interests to cooperate with the international community on Iraq by, among other things, tightening-down the border.

"Syria has a huge stake in the emergence of a unified and stable Iraq," he said. "It urged Syria to work closely with the rest of the international community to promote a stable Iraq. It also made clear to Syria that it needs to control the transit of its border by terrorists, and people supporting the insurgents in Iraq. That's something that, as we've often noted before, we feel that Syria had taken some steps, but that there is more than they can and should do in that regard."

The chairman of the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers, said Thursday in Baghdad that foreign fighters were continuing to infiltrate into Iraq from Syria and Iran and he called the situation unacceptable.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is expected to discuss the security situation in a mission to the region next week that will include stops in countries bordering Iraq, though officials say there are no plans for him to visit Syria or Iran, with which the United States has had no diplomatic ties since 1979.

Mr. Powell's message to the Syrian president came as the Bush administration continued to consider economic sanctions against the Damascus government under the Syria Accountability Act, approved overwhelmingly by the U.S. Congress last November.

The measure calls for the Bush administration to choose from a list of sanctions of varying degrees of severity, if Syria does not change its behavior on a range of issues including support for terrorists and its troop presence in Lebanon.

Asked if Syria's response to this week's U-S message would be taken into account in the sanctions deliberations, spokesman Boucher said the decision would "obviously be affected" by what Syria does, even at the last moment.