MANAMA, Bahrain # British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has called on Syria to cooperate over U.S. allegations it is harboring Iraqi fugitives or developing illegal chemical weapons.
Straw said Monday he was unsure whether Damascus had an illegal weapons program and that dialogue was needed with the Syrian government. On Sunday, U.S. President George W. Bush said Washington believed Syria had chemical weapons.
Syria denied the allegations, saying they were “misinformation” to divert attention from civil disorder in Iraq.
Also Monday, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana urged Washington to tone down its harsh statements about Syria, saying it was time to “cool down” the tense situation in the Middle East.
“The region is going through a very difficult process and I think it would be better to make constructive statements to see if we can cool down the situation in the region,” Solana told reporters in Luxembourg before a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.
Straw, asked whether Syria had been developing illegal weapons, told the BBC: “I’m not sure is the answer, and that’s why we need to sit down and talk to them about it.
“What is important … is for Syria fully to cooperate over these questions that have been raised about the fact that some fugitives from Iraq may well have fled into Syria and other matters including whether they have in fact been developing any kind of illegal or illegitimate chemical or biological programs,” Straw said.
Straw, who is seeking support in the Gulf for reconstruction in Iraq, said London and Washington had no intention of attacking Syria after Iraq.
“As far as ‘Syria next on the list’, we made clear that it is not,” Straw told reporters in Bahrain, his first stop in a tour that will take him to Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“There is no next list,” he said. “There are important questions which the Syrians need to answer.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the weekend, and Straw said he spoke to his Syrian counterpart Farouk al-Sharaa on Friday.
UK Foreign Office minister Mike O’Brien was heading to Syria on Monday to follow up on those discussions.
Over the weekend, the U.S. and Syrian governments traded allegations on whether Damascus had weapon of mass destruction or was harboring fleeing members of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Bush told reporters in Washington: “We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria.” Damascus needed to cooperate with the U.S., he added.
And U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a TV interview that Syria had bused fighters into Iraq, but coalition forces turned them away. He said there was “no question” that members of Saddam’s regime fled to Syria.
“Syria’s been on the terrorist list for years,” Rumsfeld said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the BBC: “Syria has been a concern for a long period of time. We have designated Syria for years as a state that sponsors terrorism.
“Now that the regime is gone in Baghdad, we hope that Syria will understand there is an opportunity for a better way for them if they would stop supporting terrorist activities and make sure they are not a source of weaponry of mass destruction … for terrorist organizations or anyone else.”
Syria’s deputy ambassador to the United States hit back against what he said was a campaign of disinformation.
Imad Moustapha told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Washington was trying to divert attention from chaos and lawlessness in Iraq.
Asked whether Syria was harboring terrorists or pursuing weapons of mass destruction, he referred to two articles in the Washington Times saying that Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had never seen movement of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq to Syria or in the other direction, and that Syria had been cooperating with the CIA in combating terrorism.
“Please help us free this region from all weapons of mass destruction. … Please inspect every country in the Middle East,” Moustapha said. “You know very well that Israel is stockpiling nuclear weapons.”
“We believe in American values and we believe in American fairness,” he added.