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US warns Syria over Iraq

United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has once again attacked Syria, this time accusing it of helping Saddam Hussein's key supporters escape Iraq.

He said the US has "scraps of intelligence" Damascus is helping some Iraqis move to Syria, from where a number are moving on to other places.

On Wednesday, Mr Rumsfeld also repeated earlier charges that Syria had facilitated the movement of military equipment and people into Iraq to help fight US and British forces.

Syria, along with Iran, has recently been warned by the US Government not to get involved in the current Iraq conflict.

These latest comments could be seen as further US efforts to keep other Middle East countries in check and shape the region when the war in Iraq ends.

Mr Rumsfeld said: "We are getting scraps of intelligence saying that Syria has been co-operative in facilitating the move of the people out of Iraq and into Syria."

'Hostile acts'

Mr Rumsfeld said he did not know where Saddam himself is currently hiding.

But he added: "He's not active. Therefore he's either dead or he's incapacitated, or he's healthy and cowering in some tunnel some place trying to avoid being caught."

Syria, Iraq's western neighbour, continues to supply Iraq with military equipment, the defence secretary also said, repeating a claim he made last month.

"We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian Government accountable for such shipments," he said previously.

Syria, led by President Bashar al-Assad, has denied it delivered night vision goggles and other equipment to Iraq.

Commenting on Wednesday's developments in Baghdad, Mr Rumsfeld said the end of Saddam's regime was near at hand.

Assad's warning

In language more colourful than that used by the White House earlier in the day, he said: "Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed, brutal dictators."

He also offered rewards to Iraqis who come forward with information on chemical and biological weapons and on alleged atrocities committed by Saddam's government.

The latest outburst from Mr Rumsfeld comes at a time when Syria's ties with the US have been strained.

Syria has probably irked the US considerably by leading the opposition to the war on Iraq in the Arab world, says BBC correspondent in Damascus Kim Ghattas.

President Assad previously warned regional leaders at an Arab League meeting in Cairo that several Arab countries could be next on Washington's hit list, and Syria could not be excluded.

Wednesday, 9 April, 2003, 22:30 GMT 23:30 UK


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