Syria today condemned U.S. charges that the country was developing chemical weapons, claiming the accusations were unfounded and aimed at serving the interests of Israel.
One day after the Bush administration warned Syria to halt developing such weapons and cease helping anti-Israel terrorists, Syria's cabinet angrily denied the charges. Syria has also reminded the United States that it supported the U.S.-led fight against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"The cabinet rejected these accusations and allegations and saw them as a response to Israeli stimulus and a service to [Israel's] goals and expansive greed," a statement said. The "escalated language of threats and accusations by some American officials against Syria are aimed at damaging its steadfastness and influencing its national decisions and [Arab] national stances."
The United States issued its warning Monday in remarks by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer. Rumsfeld cited intelligence reports saying Syria had tested chemical weapons in the past year. He also said the United States had reports that Syria was providing a haven to loyalists of the ousted Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. Powell said that Syria could face economic and diplomatic sanctions unless its leaders change "their actions and their behavior." The U.S. officials said they have no current plan for military action against Syria.
Rumsfeld said today that U.S. forces have shut down a pipeline used for illegal oil shipments from Iraq to Syria. There were allegations that, in violation of U.N. sanctions, Syria had received 150,000 to 200,000 barrels of oil daily through the pipeline, which opened in 2000.
Meanwhile, in published remarks today, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon repeated charges that Syrian President Bashar Assad was helping members of Hussein's government escape from Iraq.
"Bashar Assad is dangerous, his judgment is flawed," Sharon told the Yedioth Aharonoth daily in an interview. "He has shown that he is unable to draw obvious conclusions. . . . Anyone with eyes in his head would have known that Iraq was on the losing side."
Key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf region criticized the Bush administration today for threats against Syria.
"We think the threat to Syria should stop. We don't think Syria wants a war or to escalate any situation. . . . We reject any infringement of Syria's security," Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jasim Thani told reporters following an emergency meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
Other Arab countries also reacted angrily, expressing continued opposition to U.S. policy.
"I believe this is like throwing oil on a fire or salt in a wound, as you say, and it makes the situation even more tense and precarious," said Hisham Youssef, spokesman for the Arab League. "Israel being involved is going to inflame the whole region. We have suffered enough."
The Saudi newspaper Al-Watan said the focus on Syria sounded like the prelude to additional U.S. military action.
"With America's campaign against Syria and allegations that it [Syria] is harboring former Iraqi officials and possesses weapons of mass destruction, it looks as if Syria is going to be next on the list," the newspaper said.
Tension between Washington and Damascus increased after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when the United States accused Syria of providing Iraqi troops with night-vision goggles. The Bush administration also accused Syria of allowing Arab mercenaries to enter Iraq from its territory and of harboring Iraqi leaders who had escaped the attack. The United States classifies Syria as a supporter of terrorist organizations because it aids Lebanon-based Hezbollah guerrillas and other pro-Palestinian opponents of Israel.
In Doha, Qatar, today, the subject of Syria dominated an international conference on democracy and free trade. The topic was not on the formal agenda. But in the corridors and hotel restaurants, delegates from Western and Muslim countries speculated about what the tough rhetoric from Washington meant.
Some participants said they thought the United States, energized by its victory in Iraq, was determined to move against Damascus. But others said they thought a new military campaign against Syria was out of the question.
Correspondent Alan Sipress in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.