President Bashar Assad promised Thursday to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, but in a defiant speech to cabinet ministers, Baath Party members and students, he warned that a confrontation might be inevitable.
"President Bashar Assad won't bow to anyone in this world nor would he let his people or country to bow to anyone," he said to applause. "We only bow to God."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, said Syria was failing to cooperate with the probe, in violation of a U.N. resolution.
Noting that Assad's government had balked this week at sending six officials to Beirut to be questioned by U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis -- first inviting Mehlis to Damascus to negotiate about the questioning of its security personnel and then saying it needed to complete its own questioning -- Rice said Syria must "stop trying to negotiate and cooperate."
"The U.N. couldn't have been clearer. The resolution couldn't have been clearer or more detailed about what was expected of the Syrians," Rice told reporters traveling with her to the Middle East. "They're expected to answer affirmatively, yes, to whatever Mehlis needs to complete his investigation. I do not believe the U.N. Security Council resolution contemplated negotiating how they would say yes."
[Early Friday, Rice landed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on an unannounced visit.]
After Assad's speech, Syria's U.N. ambassador, Fayssal Mekdad, said in New York that the six officials could be questioned at any U.N. facility in a third country, possibly in Geneva or Vienna, but he said Mehlis "should be sensitive" to conducting interviews in Beirut following Syria's withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, the Associated Press reported.
The Security Council on Oct. 31 unanimously passed Resolution 1636, demanding that Syria cooperate with Mehlis's investigation. The resolution did not specify what actions would be taken if Syria failed to cooperate. Mehlis has until Dec. 15 to complete his inquiry and report to the council.
Assad's address, delivered at Damascus University, was his first public appearance since Mehlis submitted an interim report to the Security Council three weeks ago that accused Syria of failing to cooperate with the investigation into Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination. A leaked version of the report implicated key figures close to the president, including Maher Assad, his younger brother, and Asef Shawkat, his powerful brother-in-law and military intelligence chief.
While promising cooperation, Assad also accused the United States and Israel of trying to weaken Syria and the Middle East and said compromises would not be made at the expense of Syrian interests.
"There is an international agenda taking place," Assad said. "We will work with them in their game. What is happening now is a game. Whatever we do and to whatever extent we cooperate, a month from now they will say that Syria did not cooperate."
Assad also said it was almost certain that Syria had no hand in Hariri's death, but he did not directly address Mehlis's request in his speech.
Over the past few weeks, Syrians have been largely quiet, waiting to hear how their government would react to the mounting pressure. In his speech, Assad said they would have to choose between possible resistance and chaos.
"Resistance has a cost and chaos has a cost," Assad said. "But the cost of resistance is far less."
On Thursday, many Syrians seemed to agree.
"They want to do with us what they did with Iraq," said Nureddin Sankari, 53, a taxi driver who had just finished listening to the speech. "I went through the 1973 war under Hafez Assad, and we defended our country. Now, if they say there is a war, I'll be the first one to go and fight."
At a rally in central Damascus, Rola Zoubi, 30, a magazine editor, wore a smile and a crisp white T-shirt with the Syrian flag across the front. "He spoke our words," Zoubi said. "He expressed our feelings out loud. This is exactly how we feel."
Wright is traveling with Rice.