President Bush urged the Security Council on Tuesday to hold Syria to account for supporting terrorism throughout the Middle East, as U.S., French and British diplomats circulated a draft resolution that threatens Damascus with sanctions if it fails to cooperate with a U.N. probe into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The resolution would impose an immediate travel ban and asset freeze on Syrian officials and other individuals suspected of plotting or participating in the Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri and 22 others. But the resolution would give the Syrian government an opportunity to prove it is committed to cooperating with the investigation before economic sanctions would be considered.
The draft resolution also would require Syrian officials to provide U.N. investigators with broad access to government documents, evidence and witness testimony, and to grant them freedom of movement throughout Syria, including any facility in the country.
In a speech at Bolling Air Force Base, Bush cast Syria, along with Iran, as the Middle East's major sponsors of Islamic radicalism, saying they "share the goal of hurting America and modern Muslim governments."
Bush sought to prod the council into supporting the resolution, saying that "the United Nations must act, and Syria and its leaders must be held accountable for their continuing support of terrorism, including any involvement in the murder of Prime Minister Hariri." He added that "Syria is destabilizing Lebanon, permitting terrorists to use its territory to reach Iraq and giving safe harbor to Palestinian terror groups."
The administration yesterday was escalating its rhetoric against Syria as it presses council members to convene an Oct. 31 meeting of foreign ministers to adopt the resolution. "We want a very strong signal from the council to the government of Syria that its obstructionism has to cease and cease immediately," said John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "And we want substantive cooperation in the investigation from Syria."
Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor leading the probe of the truck-bomb killing, released his preliminary report Friday. It concluded that senior Syrian officials were almost certainly behind the assassination, and named suspects within Syrian President Bashar Assad's family and inner circle.
The new draft resolution's provision that raised the prospect of future sanctions is expected to face resistance from key Security Council members, including Algeria, China and Russia. They are reluctant to entertain punitive measures before the United Nations has concluded its investigation and perpetrators have been convicted in a court of law.
The 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, issued a statement urging the council not to resort to "any measures" based on an incomplete investigation. "The Muslim World has always been against imposing sanctions and collective punishments on a nation as they primarily cause unjust sufferings to the people."
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also responded coolly to the question of sanctions, saying that "we should be careful not to do anything that interferes with the judicial process or the rights of the accused."
The State Department acknowledged Tuesday that there are differences on the Security Council. "You've got a number of Security Council members that all have to be in sync. So that's not something that's done automatically," State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli told reporters.
Mehlis pressed Syria on Tuesday in a council briefing on his findings to "show greater and meaningful cooperation" than it has in recent months. He criticized Damascus for offering spotty cooperation and providing misleading information to investigators. He also appealed to Damascus to carry out its own inquiry into Hariri's assassination and help "fill in the gaps" in his investigation.
Today's draft resolution, which also accuses Syria of misleading and impeding the U.N. investigation, would require Syria to detain Syrian officials suspected of involvement in Hariri's killing; it would require that Syria accede to requests by Mehlis to interview Syrian suspects outside the country; and it would require Syria "stop interfering" in Lebanon's domestic affairs. The draft would also invest Mehlis with the authority to inform the council at any time if Syria fails to fully cooperate with him, a provision that could place Mehlis in the position of possibly triggering sanctions against Syria.
Mehlis, 55, a German prosecutor, said he fears his team will face increasing personal danger as it closes in on suspects in the Syrian leadership. He said his investigators have received numerous "credible" death threats since the inquiry began more than four months ago.
He indicated that the complex investigation could drag on well beyond his current Dec. 15 deadline set by Annan.
"I would note that it is entirely normal that a case of this type takes many months, if not years, to cover all aspects of investigation with certitude and to prepare a case for prosecution."
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.