Syria has chemical arms: Bush

By Sridhar Krishnaswami

Washington APRIL 14. After his senior officials like the Defence Secretary and his Deputy went after Syria in the last two weeks, the U.S. President, George W. Bush, on Sunday stepped up the rhetoric, demanding "cooperation'' from Damascus, but was careful not to say anything that would even remotely suggest that Washington was planning military strikes.

"They (meaning Syria) just need to cooperate'', Mr. Bush said on Sunday.

"We expect cooperation and I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation''. He warned Syria against taking in deposed Iraqi leaders and charged that country had chemical weapons. It is not clear if Mr. Bush was talking about chemical weapons and its production at centres in Syria or referring to allegations that the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq had sent chemical and biological weapons to Syria prior to the start of the conflict on March 20 for storage and safe-keeping.

"People have got to know that we are serious about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction'', Mr. Bush remarked even as he laughed away a question on whether Syria was a good candidate for his "Axis of Evil'' list.

"We will deal with each situation as it arises.''

If Syria has been meriting a lot of attention in senior circles of this Republican administration, some of it has to do with allegations that Damascus was deliberately hurting the coalition military actions in Iraq by shipping military hardware, including anti-tank weapons and night vision goggles to the Saddam Hussein army.

The Bush administration does not subscribe to the view that this "trade'' in military merchandise could be done at private levels — the impression here is that Damascus could have stopped it if it wanted. And in the closing stages of the military conflict in Iraq, the Bush administration started lashing out at Syria for giving refuge to "terrorists and war criminals" from Iraq, notably the top echelons of the leadership.

Rumours were rife during the course of the conflict that Mr. Hussein's first wife and two of his daughters have found protection in Syria.

But on Sunday, the administration's frustration and anger at Syria was reflected in the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld's comments that foreign military fighters in Iraq came from Syria and that U.S. forces had detained one busload of fighters with a huge amount of money and leaflets that offered rewards for killing Americans. Mr. Rumsfeld repeated the charge that several high-ranking members of the Iraqi regime have fled to Iraq.

.That Damascus has rejected all accusations is a different matter. There is no question of the fact that the Bush administration is keen on reaping the political dividends of the post-conflict phase in Iraq.

Although in the context of Iraq, Syria comes in handy in talking about weapons peddling, terrorists and war criminals, Washington undoubtedly wants to soften Damascus in a way that could be beneficial to the larger West Asia peace process involving the Israelis and the Palestinians.

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