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Pressure Mounts in US Congress for Sanctions on Syria - 2004-04-28

U.S. lawmakers are urging President Bush to impose sanctions on Syria, four months after he signed a bill allowing such penalties against Damascus for supporting terrorism.

President Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act into law in December, but he has yet to implement it.

A chief sponsor of the measure, Congressman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, accused the Bush administration of appeasing Damascus by delaying its implementation.

?We are once again sending the wrong message to Syria,? he said. ?I am afraid the administration, even with the strong rhetoric about the war on terror, is returning to the old ways of keeping the heat off Syria. This has got to stop.?

Under the law, the president can impose sanctions, if he deems Syria has not ended its support of terrorist groups, has failed to stop anti-American fighters from crossing into Iraq from Syria, has not ended its weapons of mass destruction programs, and has not pulled its troops out of Lebanon.

The president has a number of options, ranging from banning overall exports to Syria and U.S. investments in that country, to limiting diplomatic ties and freezing Syrian assets.

State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli Wednesday said the administration is still considering how to implement the law.

News reports say some U.S. officials are concerned sanctions could hurt efforts to encourage Syria to expand its cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Mr. Ereli touched upon that issue.

?We have said that Syria has been helpful to us in certain aspects in the war on terror, particularly in the area of information-sharing, and we have recognized that cooperation,? Mr. Ereli said. ?We have also made it clear that there are other aspects of cooperation, which, I think, have not been as forthcoming, particularly in the question of repatriation of Iraqi funds and control of the border. Those are issues that we are engaged with the Syrian government on, and continue to try to seek positive movement in those areas.?

Congressman Engel and the other co-sponsor of the measure, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, say they are drafting another bill to further tighten penalties against Syria. The bill would also give support to pro-democracy groups in the country.

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen took issue with a statement by the Syrian government that it would not tolerate terrorism, following a bomb attack in Damascus' diplomatic quarter and an ensuing gun battle that killed four people Tuesday.

?This is a sad charade. All of us who are familiar with the Syrian regime's track record on terrorism know full well that this is just one more political maneuver by Damascus to avoid being sanctioned by the United States,? she said.

On the Senate side, Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, recently wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell, also urging the administration to impose sanctions on Syria.