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Powell warns Syria, but says U.S. has no plans for further military action in Mideast

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Syria on Tuesday to heed rules of a "new environment" in the Middle East, and indicated that Washington wants nations there free of weapons of mass destruction, including Israel.

Powell dismissed a suggestion that the Bush administration has a list of other nations that U.S. forces might attack after Iraq.

"We hope that Syria understands now that there is a new environment in the region with the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein," Powell said.

Powell continued the Bush administration's ramped-up of criticism of Damascus, saying Syria has opened its borders to fleeing officials of Saddam's toppled regime.

"We don't believe Syria should find it in their interest to give refuge, to give haven to these sorts of individuals who should be returned to Iraq to face the justice that will be meted out by the Iraqi people," Powell told foreign reporters.

President Bush called French President Jacques Chirac earlier in the day, and the two "agreed that Syria should not harbor Iraqi leaders," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

In the past week, Washington has turned up the heat on Syria, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and developing stocks of chemical weapons, including the nerve agents VX and sarin, as well as harboring wanted Iraqi officials.

The Syrian government on Tuesday condemned "these accusations and falsified allegations" and suggested that Jerusalem was orchestrating the campaign.

The U.S. criticism has spawned fears across the Middle East that U.S. troops might soon move against Damascus.

In the Saudi capital of Riyadh, envoys from the six Arab nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council defended Syria. Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al Thani said Council members "do not accept" the Bush administration's assertions against Syria.

The alliance urged the United States and Syria to settle their differences at the negotiating table.

"We are watching this with great care," Hamad said.

Powell said Washington is not planning further military action in the Middle East.

"There is no list. There is no war plan right now to go attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values," Powell said.

Foreign reporters asked Powell whether Washington would treat Israel and Syria by the same standard when it comes to weapons of mass destruction.

"We would like to see that whole region free of weapons of mass destruction," Powell responded.

Israel is commonly believed to have about 200 nuclear weapons, deployable from sea, land and air. It has not permitted international inspections of its arsenal.

Later, Powell linked international inspections of Israel's arsenal to successful peace negotiations for Syria and Lebanon.

"If we can move forward with a comprehensive peace process that leads to a comprehensive solution that creates a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with a Jewish state, Israel, and ultimately have that comprehensive solution reach out and touch Lebanon and Syria, then I think a lot of pieces will begin to fall in place with respect to what people's various needs are," Powell said.

"But right now we will just continue to say that we believe that the entire region should be free of weapons of mass destruction," he added.

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(Montgomery reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Johnson reported from Washington.)

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

Iraq

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