The Bush administration has reacted angrily to a published suggestion that it is ignoring illicit Syrian purchases of Iraqi oil in order to preserve a growing intelligence relationship with the Damascus government. It is also expressing confidence that more effective U.N. trade sanctions against Iraq will be in place later this year.
Officials here say U.S. diplomats have raised repeated objections to the Syrian oil purchases with senior figures in the Damascus government, including President Bashar Assad, and they insist the notion the United States has been "looking the other way" on its dealings with Iraq is flatly wrong.
The State Department comments follow a Washington Post report that Syria, despite promises not to buy Iraqi oil in violation of U.N. sanctions, is getting as much as 200,000 barrels a day though a pipeline that opened two years ago, and has quietly become Iraq's biggest income source outside the U.N. oil-for-food program.
According to the Post, the Bush administration decided not to confront Damascus over the issue because it has increased the sharing of intelligence information with the United States, since last September's terrorist attacks, on militant groups linked to Osama Bin Laden.
Briefing reporters, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher did not address the intelligence matter, but said the unregulated flow of Iraqi oil outside of U.N. control remains a "major on-going concern" of the United States and that U.S. officials have repeatedly complained to Syrian leaders.
"There should no mistake of our seriousness on this issue, and reports suggesting otherwise are wrong," said Mr. Boucher. "The U.S. has raised these concerns bilaterally, with Syria, on a number of occasions and at the highest levels including very recently. We've made this a bilateral issue and we've also taken the issue now to the U.N. Security Council. We've underscored that Syrian assertions that they're just testing the pipeline are just not credible."
Mr. Boucher said President Assad personally assured Secretary of State Powell last year that he intended to put the oil imports under U.N. control. He said the fact Syria now has a seat on the U.N. Security Council gives it "special responsibility" to abide by council resolutions on the oil sales issue.
Syrian officials quoted by The Washington Post said the country had received some Iraqi oil in the course of testing the pipeline, and that Damascus intends to apply for U.N. permission to import oil under the auspices of the "oil-for-food" program as do Jordan and Turkey.
Iraq's growing trade outside the U.N. rules have propelled a U.S.-led drive to alter the sanctions program to more specifically target imports of technology that could be used to advance Iraq's drive for weapons of mass destruction.
In a talk with reporters Thursday after meeting Canadian Foreign Minister William Graham, Mr. Powell said the United States has had good meetings of late with Russia, which has been a hold-out against the so-called "smart sanctions" program.
The secretary said he thinks the new approach will be in place by the time the old sanctions regime expires in May. "I am confident that we will continue to work closely with the Russians and try to bring into effect by the deadline in May a reviewed, revised goods review list, and that the whole Security Council will bless it at that time. And the Iraqis, from that point on, will have no one to blame but themselves for any deprivation that the Iraqi people are suffering. It's their fault now, and we're going to take away their last excuse when the smart sanctions come into effect."
Moscow has agreed to support the new sanctions approach even though Russian officials say it stands to lose billions of dollars on business with Iraq under the revised system. A Security Council resolution providing for the targeted sanctions, approved in November, provides for talks on lifting sanctions, if Iraq allowed U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country.