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Powell Senses New Attitude from Syria on Policing Iraq Border - 2004-09-22

Secretary of State Colin Powell met Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. He said he detects a new attitude by the Damascus government with regard to patrolling the troubled Syrian-Iraqi border.

The U.S.-Syrian relationship has been frosty in recent months amid U.S. allegations of terrorist infiltration across the Syrian border into Iraq, and complaints about Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics.

But after the half-hour meeting between Mr. Powell and Foreign Minister al-Shara at United Nations headquarters, both sides gave a positive read-out, with Mr. Powell hinting of a thaw in the relationship.

At a news conference, Secretary Powell echoed Mr. al-Shara's remarks that the discussion had been a positive one, and said it built on discussions in Damascus earlier this month by a high-level U.S. delegation headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns.

Mr. Powell said he now believes the Syrians are anxious to do more in terms of tightening up the border with Iraq, and in working with the Iraqi interim government including an expected visit to Syria soon by Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

"I hope that the Syrians now understand the need for all of us to do as much as we can in a tripartite manner, Syria, the Iraqi interim government and the coalition, to stop illicit, improper traffic across that border," Mr. Powell said. "It's a tough military mission. It's a tough political mission. But I sense a new attitude from the Syrians. But of course, it all depends on actions, not just attitudes. So well be working closely with them."

Mr. Powell made clear the meeting had not erased all U.S. concerns about Syrian policies, including efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and allowing what the United States considers terrorist organizations to have offices in Damascus.

But he did describe as positive Syria's redeployment of troops in Lebanon this week away from bases south of Beirut, though noting that it fell short of demands in a recent American-backed U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an end to foreign interference in Lebanon.

Secretary Powell had met earlier with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who told reporters Wednesday the Syrian pullback in Lebanon was only cosmetic and that Syria is plundering the Lebanese economy.