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US Cites Venezuelan Links to Iran, Cuba in Arms Sales Ban

The Bush administration is citing alleged Venezuelan intelligence links to Iran and Cuba as a reason behind its decision Monday to ban arms sales to the Caracas government. The State Department said a claim from Caracas that the move is a prelude to a U.S. attack on Venezuela is just overheated rhetoric.

The State Department says the decision to halt weapons sales to Venezuela stems from a formal determination by the administration that the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not cooperating with the United States in the fight against terrorism.

The action, first disclosed by the State Department on Monday, will have little practical effect since Venezuela does little military business with the United States, and has shifted in recent years to other suppliers.

But it underlines the increasingly frosty U.S. relationship with Mr. Chavez, who has been accused by administration officials of undermining democracy at home and trying to export his brand of left-wing populism to other countries in the region.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack declined details but said the arms sales ban stemmed from, among other things, Venezuelan intelligence cooperation with Iran and Cuba and ties with the two main Colombian insurgent groups.

"In our judgment, they over the course of the year developed a much closer and stronger intelligence-sharing relationship with the intelligence agencies of Iran and Cuba," he said. "We also have concerns about their failure to stop transit of certain individuals through Venezuela. We also have concerns about Venezuela serving as a transit point for types of arms. We have concerns about their links to the FARC and ELN. So there's a broad menu here of concerns that we have. Like I said, I can't get into all the details of it. But these are not decisions that we take lightly."

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez Araque has charged that the U.S. decision to halt arms sales is intended to prepare the political conditions for a U.S. attack on the South American country.

Spokesman McCormack dismissed that remark - reminiscent of similar comments by President Chavez - as overheated rhetoric, and an effort to divert the discussion from Venezuela's lack of cooperation in the war against terrorism.

He said Venezuela has repeatedly used charges of alleged hostile intent by the United States as a foil, and that the Bush administration has no problem dealing with leftist governments in the region that govern democratically.

McCormack also brushed aside a reported suggestion by a senior military adviser of Mr. Chavez, General Alberto Muller, that Venezuela was considering the possibility of selling its fleet of U.S.-made F-16 fighter aircraft to another country, perhaps Iran.

He noted that Venezuela is bound by the 1982 contact under which it acquired the planes to seek U.S. approval for any third-party transfer, and he made clear that permission for a sale to Iran would not be forthcoming.