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Powell to visit West Asia, including Syria

Colin Powell may visit West Asia, including Syria, to push for Arab-Israeli peace and to press Damascus on its suspected weapons programs and support for Saddam Hussein's dying regime.

world Updated: Apr 18, 2003 12:43 IST

US Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Thursday he may soon visit the West Asia, including Syria, to push for Arab-Israeli peace and to press Damascus on its suspected weapons programs and support for Saddam Hussein's dying regime.

US officials declined to give specific dates for the possible trip, saying it was not expected to happen before Palestinian prime minister designate Mahmoud Abbas and his Cabinet are confirmed and that it could easily slip into May.

Washington has said the confirmation of Abbas and his team, which could take place next week, will trigger its release of its West Asia "road map" peace plan and usher in a new US drive to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis to terms.

The US military victory over Iraq has also brought a new focus on Syria, which Washington accuses of harbouring fleeing Saddam associates, helping Iraq fight US forces, seeking weapons of mass destruction and supporting global terrorism.

The accusations, which Syria denies, have triggered speculation that the United States might be considering invading, an idea that Powell has repeatedly played down.

"We wanted to point out strongly to the Syrians that this is a time for you to take another look at your policies," Powell told the PBS's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

Powell said the United States was worried Saddam's family members and associates may be seeking refuge in Syria and said Washington had provided Damascus with information on "specific named individuals that we would hope they will look into."

A senior US official later said there were signs Syria might be considering expelling Iraqi officials who sought safe haven, but declined to give details.

Powell said the United States had evidence that Fedayeen irregular forces had come into Iraq from Syria and he said US-led forces had caught people returning to Iraq from Syria carrying large sums of money and planning to join the fight.

But he dismissed the idea that the United States was also considering the possibility of invading Syria, saying that its case was different from Iraq's and that the president had a variety of policies to deal with different countries.

"There is no war plan on anyone's desk right now to go marching on Syria," he said. "There are ways to deal with a country such as Syria ... that don't involve reaching into a toolbox and pulling out an invasion plan."

'Reciprocal movements'

US officials said the main thrust of Powell's trip, if it happens, is to give fresh impetus to Middle East peace after a 30-month-old Palestinian uprising in which at least 1,993 Palestinians and 732 Israelis have been killed.

As part of its conditions for moving forward on Middle East peace the United States has demanded reform of the Palestinian authority and a "new and different" leadership, meaning the sidelining of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

With the confirmation of Abbas's government, one US official said the Palestinians would have met some of its conditions and it would be time for Israel to take some steps.

"When the road map is issued, the feeling will be that the Palestinians have taken some very significant steps on the road to reform that we have been seeking and that in keeping with the principles guiding the road map ... there are going (to have to be) reciprocal moves," said the US official. "We'll be looking to Israel to make some reciprocal movements."

The road map is known to include a halt to Palestinian violence in a 30-month-old uprising and an end to Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, something the Israeli government may find difficult to carry out.

"There is plenty in the road map that is going to amount to difficult steps on both sides and that will be part of the message (Powell will deliver)," said the US official.

US officials who asked not to be named said Bush aides told a top Israeli official at a White House meeting on Tuesday Israel should end its crackdown in the West Bank and Gaza once a new Palestinian prime minister is confirmed.

First Published: Apr 18, 2003 09:52 IST