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Syria Tells US of Border Closing with Iraq - 2003-04-11

The State Department said Thursday it has been told by Syria that it is closing its border with Iraq to all but humanitarian traffic. This follows charges by Bush administration officials that Syria may have allowed arms and Arab volunteers across its border to help the Saddam Hussein regime.

Officials say Syria has conveyed the assurances about the border crossings at a senior level and that the United States which now has troops in Iraq close to the Syrian frontier will monitor the situation closely to see if the commitment is kept.

Top Bush administration figures including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have suggested in recent days that Syria has allowed military equipment and Arab volunteers to cross into Iraq to aid Saddam Hussein's war effort.

There have also been allegations that Syria, a strong critic of the war in Iraq, has allowed members of the Iraqi regime to cross into its territory to seek safe-haven.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. Ambassador Theodore Khattouf has raised the issue on an almost-daily basis with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa among others, and been told that the Damascus government is taking action. "We now understand that Syria has closed its borders to all but humanitarian traffic. That's what they have told us, and we certainly hope that proves to be true. As the Secretary noted very recently, Syria has a choice to make, and we hope Syria will make the right one," said Mr. Boucher.

Mr. Boucher was referring to a Washington address last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said Syria can continue supporting terrorist groups and the "dying regime" of Saddam Hussein, or embark on a different and more hopeful course.

Mr. Powell said that either way, Syria bears responsibility for its choices and for the consequences wording taken by some as a possible threat of U.S. military action.

However in interview remarks released Thursday, Mr. Powell moved to ease concerns that the United States intends to target countries of which it has been critical, including Syria and Iran.

He told Pakistani state television the United States has no plan or list or countries to "attack one after another" after the war in Iraq. And in a talk with the Los Angeles Times, he said Syria and Iran should realize that pursuing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorist activities are "not in their interest." But he said it does not mean that war is coming to them.