Syria's Assad Calls for Better U.S. Ties

Associated Press
Date: 03-29-06

By ALBERT AJI, Associated Press Writer

36 minutes ago

DAMASCUS, Syria - Syrian President Bashar Assad has renewed his call for better relations with the United States but at the same time criticized President Bush's government, saying it does not care about peace.

In an interview with PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show," Assad also warned that civil war in Iraq would reverberate throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. The fear that sectarian strife in Iraq could spread to neighboring states is shared by many others in the Arab world.

"No one in the region wants bad relations with the United States. It is a great power and the most advanced country in the world," Assad said in the interview broadcast Monday, which he gave in English.

Assad indicated he felt that Washington had not given Syria enough credit for sharing intelligence on terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. He said Syria had helped Washington "because what happened in New York may happen in Syria."

Relations soured when the United States accused Syria of supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian radical groups and allowing militants to cross into Iraq to fight the U.S.-led multinational force there. The United States has placed limited economic sanctions on Syria.

After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, the United States recalled its ambassador from Damascus and has repeatedly accused the country of interfering in Lebanon and failing to cooperate with the U.N. investigation into Hariri's killing. Syria denies the charges.

"You cannot have the good, normal and sophisticated kind of cooperation between the intelligence (services) and at the same time you have animosity in the political field," Assad said. "So, we either have normal relations across the board as a package, or let us stop this cooperation."

Asked what he expected from the United States in return for Syrian intelligence on terrorism, Assad said: "At least do not be against us. We don't want anything from them. But not to be against Syria."

Assad has often called for a resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks, which broke down in early 2000 during his late father's presidency. Israel has rebuffed the call, saying Syria must first clamp down on Hezbollah and the Palestinian radicals.

Syria would like Washington to use its influence with Israel to revive the talks.

"We need peace," Assad said. "But (President Bush's) administration does not care about peace or the peace process."

Syria denies enabling militants to go to Iraq to join the insurgency, and says it is doing its best to maintain security along its 380-mile border with Iraq.

Assad's government does not regard groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist, but as legitimate resistance movements against Israeli occupation.

Assad said the United States had walked into a quagmire in Iraq. He said he had warned of this when he met U.S. officials and Congress members before the 2003 invasion.

He said he had told the Americans: "After you occupy Iraq, you will have chaos, resistance, and you will have a swamp. You are going to sink in the swamp. And what I said is happening everyday."

Assad voiced a general fear in the Arab world, saying he was concerned if civil war broke out in Iraq, it could have a contagion effect spreading sectarian violence to other countries including Syria.

"Central Asia, and the Gulf and the Middle East," Assad said. "We have the same mosaic of society (as Iraq), and part of this chaos will be based on the matrix of our society. So this will have an effect all over the region."

Like Iraq under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, the longtime rulers of Syria come from a minority sect which controls a majority from another sect.

The Assad family comes from the Alawite religious sect, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam which controls a majority Sunni population. Under Saddam, the Sunni minority dominated the Shiite majority and Sunnis are now the driving force behind a bloody insurgency.

The Syrian leader did not call for the United States to withdraw its forces from Iraq. But if they remain in the country, he said the current situation would continue.

Talk-show host Charlie Rose was scheduled to undergo heart surgery in Paris on Wednesday after experiencing shortness of breath last week while in Syria, a spokesman said.


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