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Bush accuses Syria of harboring weapons, Iraqi leaders

WASHINGTON—President Bush Sunday accused Syria of having weapons of mass destruction and of harboring fleeing Iraqi leaders, raising questions about whether that country might be the next target for the U.S. military.

"We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," Bush said. "Each situation will require a different response and, of course ... first things first. We're in Iraq now, and the second thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation."

He also said he expects Syria to stop harboring cronies of Saddam Hussein believed to have fled there as their government in Iraq collapsed.

"The Syrian government needs to cooperate with the United States and our coalition partners and not harbor any Baathists, any military officials, any people who need to be held to account for their tenure" in Iraq, Bush told reporters Sunday.

Bush, appearing in an expansive mood on the day that seven American prisoners of war were recovered in good health, sidestepped a question about whether the United States might threaten war against Syria if it did not cooperate with U.S. demands. "They just need to cooperate," he said in response.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also brushed aside questions about war against Syria.

"That's above my pay grade," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" program. "Those are the kinds of things that countries and presidents decide. That's broad national policy. I am a participant, but I am certainly not a decider."

Rumsfeld said senior Iraqi leaders have fled to Syria, and some have continued on to other unnamed countries. He did not identify any, but The Washington Times quoted anonymous U.S. government officials as saying that two Iraqi biological weapons scientists were among those making it to Damascus, Syria. They were identified as Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, described by U.S. officials as "Mrs. Anthrax," and Rihab Taha, known as "Dr. Germ."

Syrian officials denied that Iraqi officials had escaped to their country.

"It's been a campaign of disinformation and misinformation ... about Syria since even before the war started. And this is just an ongoing series of false accusations," said Imad Moustapha, Deputy Syrian Ambassador to the United States, during an appearance on NBC. He appeared before Bush said his country also harbored chemical weapons.

Few believe that Saddam himself escaped to Syria or any other country. Indeed, Army. Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall commander of the war, said Sunday the United States has a sample of Saddam's DNA, which could be critical to confirming his death.

"The appropriate people with the appropriate forensics are doing checks you would find appropriate in each of the places where we think we may have killed regime leadership," Franks said on CNN.

Bush's warning to Syria came as Saddam's hometown of Tikrit fell to U.S. forces Sunday and with it the last chance for a concerted Iraqi military counterattack.

Marines marching into Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad along the Tigris River, met little resistance, U.S. officials said. As Saddam's home and political base—and the last major Iraqi city to be seized by the U.S.-led coalition—Tikrit was the last place where Republican Guard or other Iraq forces could have massed against allied forces.

Instead, U.S. officials believed most Iraq commanders had fled before the Marines arrived.

"I wouldn't say it's over, but I will say we have American forces in Tikrit right now," said Franks.

Underscoring Bush's contention that much remains to be done in Iraq, scattered fighting, looting and reprisals continued Sunday.

In parts of Baghdad, residents Sunday looted the homes of Baath Party officials, an institute of military affairs, army barracks and military warehouses.

In other sections of the city, U.S. soldiers guarded banks and hospitals and some bus service was restored. Acting on tips from residents, soldiers found weapons stored in several residential neighborhoods.

In one middle class neighborhood, Marines found four large missiles stacked inside an orange trailer. On first inspection, Marine Lt. Michael Cerroni, 27, of Carthage, N.Y., said they appeared to be banned Soviet-made Frog-7 missiles, with a U.N.-forbidden range of 1,000 kilometers.

In another discovery, Marines raided a school over the weekend, routed Fedayeen militia fighters, and found row after row of suicide bomb belts neatly sewn into fashionable brown leather cowboy-style vests. They were loaded with ball bearings and explosives. U.S. troops also found briefcases packed with explosives and a huge stack of membership cards bearing names and pictures of the Saddam Fedayeen.

South of Baghdad, at least three soldiers were wounded Sunday from small arms and possibly rocket-propelled grenades when their unit was ambushed on Highway 8. The soldiers were from the 3rd battalion, 2nd brigade, 101st Airborne Division.

In Najaf, violent infighting and a power struggle continued among Shiite Muslims.

Armed Iraqis surrounded the homes of leading Shiite Muslim Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and two other spiritual leaders, threatening to kill the men on Monday unless they cede power or leave the country, sources close to the besieged clerics said.

The attackers were followers of a rival Iraqi cleric seeking to control the historical center of the minority Muslim sect, whose followers make up approximately 60 percent of Iraq's population. The same group is accused of fatally stabbing pro-Western Shiite cleric Abdul Majid Al Khoei and at least three others last week.

In Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, Arab residents formed armed militias on Sunday in a desperate attempt to protect their families, homes and shops from marauding gangs of looters, thieves and arsonists.

Already, the prestigious University of Mosul has been wrecked. The Medical College was robbed of microscopes, medicines and precious lab equipment. The public library lost its oldest volumes and the archives lost countless historical documents. Hospitals were ripped apart, ambulances hijacked and drug cabinets carried off whole.

Religious leaders in Mosul acknowledged the need for the neighborhood militias given the wholesale breakdown of law and order in the city, but the clerics also appealed to residents to put down their weapons in favor of unarmed patrols and roadblocks.

"These people setting up their own private militias and checkpoints are childish and stupid," said Sheikh Badr Al-Hilali, director of Mosul's mosques and religious sites. "The allies have to stop this."

But the allies there—several hundred Green Berets and Marines—appeared overwhelmed and overmatched.

Convoys of Green Berets, Marines and members of a new, U.S.-supervised squad of Free Iraqi Fighters made several swings through the city Sunday, large American flags flying high behind their Humvees. Children waved and shouted hello, although most of the men in the Arab neighborhoods looked on warily and unsmiling.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Mark McDonald in Mosul, Iraq; Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Tehran, Iran; and Carol Rosenberg in Baghdad, Iraq, contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ