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Israel Welcomes Increased US Pressure on Syria - 2003-04-14

Israel is welcoming stepped-up pressure by the Bush administration against Syria. Israel's defense minister says his country has a list of demands for Damascus that it wants the Americans to pass on.

Last month Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued his first warning to Syria, accusing Damascus of allowing military supplies and fighters to cross the border into Iraq. Since then the Israel media have focused on the increasing tensions between Syria and the United States, and Israeli officials have made little attempt to hide their satisfaction at this development.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was quick to speak out. About a week ago he told Israeli radio that the American allegations against Syria must be taken seriously.

On Sunday the defense minister briefed the cabinet on the post-war Iraq situation and, according to a government communique, the issue of Syria came up again.

In an interview published in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, Mr. Mofaz said Israel has a list of demands for Syria, and he said these would be best passed on by the United States.

In short, Israel wants Syria to dismantle the Hezbollah guerrilla group in southern Lebanon and remove Hezbollah weapons and rockets from the area. Israel also wants Damascus to stop Iranian support for Hezbollah coming through Syrian ports.

In addition, Israel wants Syria to stop harboring Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Mr. Mofaz says these groups have command centers in Syria from which they issue money and orders to militants in the Palestinian territories.

The defense minister said he had discussed these issues with senior American officials in recent days, and he said Israel's concerns and demands would be brought up in Washington during this week's talks between Israeli envoys and Bush administration officials.

Israel officials have long voiced concerns about the potential threat to Israel emanating from countries in the region such as Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya. They say that now that the Iraqi regime has fallen, the United States will be able to set its sights on some of these other threats, and Syria looks like a likely next target.

Defense Minister Mofaz said this need not happen through forcible action. He said the United States has many other means at its disposal.

Syria has strongly rejected the American accusations against it. Syrian deputy ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha said the Bush administration's accusations are a campaign of misinformation and disinformation.

In Damascus, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told the Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera that Syria's borders with Iraq are closed. She said the problem is that all accusations against Syria are coming from information provided by Israel, which she said is trying to undermine U.S.-Syrian relations.