The question of whether Syria had been receiving oil supplies from Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions, and whether the pipeline was blown up or disrupted in the early days of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, briefly occupied Syria's ambassador, Rostom Zoubi.
"This is an old line and all of Iraq is being destroyed, so what's a pipeline? Nothing," the ambassador said in response to queries that the pipeline to the northern Syrian port of Banias may have been targeted. The Reuters news agency quoted a Syrian industry source as saying that the pumping of about 200,000 barrels a day of crude from Iraq's southern oil fields for export to Syria had stopped.
There was some experimental pumping and talk about building an alternative to the pipeline in the future, once sanctions are lifted, Zoubi said. Syria reportedly refines Iraqi crude for domestic consumption, allowing it to export more of its own oil from Banias and Tartous, its two ports on the Mediterranean.
Shedding his usual reserve with the media, Zoubi and his new deputy chief of mission, Imad Moustapha, have responded in recent interviews to accusations made by senior U.S. officials about Syrian support for the government of President Saddam Hussein and for terrorist groups whose information offices are based in Damascus.
In an address Sunday at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Syria faced a critical choice. "Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein," he said, "or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices and for the consequences."
Syria's two senior diplomats here have appeared on U.S. television broadcasts and are responding to a flood of interview requests, they said, to fend off what they described as an "unfair and unsubstantiated campaign." With visible pique, Zoubi said neither Powell nor any other U.S. official summoned him or lodged any formal complaints, choosing instead to use the AIPAC conference as a venue to "attack Syria." Attendees applauded every time Powell criticized Syria, Zoubi added with obvious displeasure.
The ambassador said he did not know whether the U.S. Embassy in Damascus had forwarded any U.S. objections to Syrian officials in recent days about these issues or about the alleged movement of Iraqis across the Syrian border.
Syrian Information Minister Adnan Omran told the BBC that no fighters or guerrillas were crossing the Syria-Iraq border to join the fight against U.S.-led forces.
"When circumstances at home are tough, Iraqi citizens want to go back to their towns and check on their families," Moustapha said. "We cannot stop them. There is a camp set up for fleeing Iraqi refugees at the border, but there is very little activity there. Those returning home to Iraq are less than 10 per day."
Moustapha said U.S. forces were "scrutinizing" Syria's border. Asked to comment on footage showing Syrians boarding a bus headed to Iran to eventually fight alongside Iraqis, Moustapha said it was "sheer propaganda that did not reflect the realities on the ground." Iranian officials at the United Nations have also denied allowing Iraqi Shiite fighters of the anti-Hussein Badr Brigade across its border.
"It is not in America's interest to create new enemies in the region," Zoubi said testily. "Please take note of that, especially not Syria, a U.N. Security Council member which tried to bring about a peaceful solution to this crisis and which has collaborated with the United States in the fight against terrorism."
At the same time, the diplomats stressed that Syria has expressed its moral and political support for the "people of Iraq."
Colette Avital, a Labor Party member of Israel's Knesset, or parliament, said many Israelis feared a prolonged war in Iraq would enrage Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and fuel the determination of Arab militants to go down fighting. Although Israelis supported the war because they considered Iraq a threat, "the longer this war lasts, the more we and Americans will find ourselves in a situation in which radical forces will call the shots," she said.
"We don't know how Palestinians will react. We have to go ahead with the road map for peace as soon as possible," she said, referring to a timetable endorsed by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations for the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
As Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was making his rounds in Washington with hopes of persuading U.S. officials to revise the so-called road map, Avital cautioned that a return to a "sequential map" of not doing anything unless Palestinians first fulfilled a number of criteria would meet with failure.
"They should do things in parallel," she said in an interview Monday. Avital, who chairs the Knesset's Committee on Immigration and Integration, is in Washington to attend the AIPAC annual conference.
A letter to President Bush signed by Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) urges Bush to stick to principles he outlined last year calling on Palestinians to stop all violence, establish a new authority that would dismantle any terrorist networks, be transparent and accountable, and overhaul the security apparatus. The letter said that "only then can we expect Israel to respond with concrete actions. Many are urging you to short-circuit this process and to focus on timelines in achieving the roadmap's benchmarks. We believe that you will not be dissuaded and will focus instead on real performance."