By Susan Cornwell
Thursday, November 8, 2007; 8:02 PM
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Syria has agreed to allow U.S. personnel into the country to process refugees from the Iraq war for admission into the United States, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.
The official, David Welch, expressed appreciation for the decision of the Syrians, with whom Washington has strained relations. But he also issued a sharply worded warning to Damascus not to interfere in Lebanon's presidential election process.
The Lebanese parliament is due to meet on Monday to elect a new president. Washington is concerned Syria or its supporters would try to manipulate the outcome of the presidential vote in Lebanon through violence, intimidation or refusing to participate, Welch said.
The agreement on Iraqi refugees followed a trip to Damascus by James Foley, the senior U.S. coordinator for Iraqi refugees, Welch said in a statement to a Senate foreign relations subcommittee.
In the talks with the Syrians, the United States renewed its commitment to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees in Syria, who number more than 1.4 million, said Welch, who is assistant secretary for the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau.
Syria agreed to let a "handful" of U.S. staff into Syria to process U.S. visas for Iraqis. These Americans would interview hundreds of Iraqi refugees in the coming weeks, Welch said.
"Until recently Syria has mostly kept its borders open to those coming out of Iraq and has not sent them back," he said. "We're trying to help."
Syria has now imposed tighter entry rules on Iraqis.
MORE THAN 4 MILLION
Sectarian fighting and other violence that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq have forced more than 4 million people to leave their homes. More than 2 million people are displaced within Iraq and up to 2.2 million are believed to be in Syria and Jordan, according to U.N. data.
The United States has been criticized for taking in only a small number of Iraqi refugees -- about 1,700 in the year to September. U.S. officials had blamed some of the problem on Syria not issuing visas to U.S. staff to process the refugees.
However, U.S. officials pledged last month to start taking in as many as 1,000 Iraqi refugees a month via new processing centers around the region.
Relations between Washington and Damascus are tense over a host of issues. The Bush administration accuses Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its borders into Iraq to attack U.S. forces there, undermining the democratic process in Lebanon, and backing Palestinian militants.
Washington imposed economic sanctions on Syria in 2004, and earlier this week the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against four people it said were linked to Syrian efforts to undermine neighboring Lebanon's sovereignty.
"We are making it clear that interference or intimidation in the (Lebanese) electoral process is unacceptable to the United States and to the international community," Welch said.
"We have already taken a series of punitive measures and will take more" in response to Syria's actions on a number of fronts, said Welch. Washington "has the ability to further isolate the Syrian government both diplomatically and financially," he said.
(Editing by David Alexander and Mohammad Zargham)