© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2003
Trying to calm a charged atmosphere, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that the United States has no plans to go to war with Syria or anyone else to bring democracy to a totalitarian state.
Meanwhile, Syria condemned U.S. charges that the country is developing chemical weapons, saying the threats are unfounded and aimed at serving the interests of Israel.
Other Muslim states expressed alarm over the situation, with Iran pledging to "employ all our nonmilitary facilities" to stave off any attack on Syria.
The alarm, Powell said, is unwarranted.
"Iraq was a unique case, where it wasn't just a matter of a dictator being there," Powell said at a news conference with foreign reporters. "There is no war plan to go and attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values.
"Democratic values have to ultimately come from within a society and within a nation," he said, tempering heated statements from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and some other senior U.S. officials.
The Syrian Cabinet responded angrily to the earlier statements.
"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."
Having declared war against terror worldwide, singled out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil," and then gone to war with Iraq, President Bush has raised fears abroad, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, that the world's only superpower would use its muscle freely against dictatorial regimes.
At the White House, Bush met separately with Powell and with Rumsfeld and took a 20-minute telephone call from French President Jacques Chirac, their first conversation since Feb. 7.
They discussed Syria and the situation in Iraq, and they agreed Syria should not harbor Iraqi leaders, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Chirac also told Bush he wanted to play a "pragmatic role in reconstruction events in Iraq," Fleischer said, offering no details.
"We have differences," the spokesman said. "We still have some of those differences. But that won't stop the president from working in a businesslike and professional way with an ally like France."
At the Pentagon, a U.S. defense official said Syria had not repositioned its military forces in anticipation of any U.S. attack from Iraq.
The Associated Press, quoting U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, reported that Syria had been quietly helpful in the war against the al-Qaida terror network and that there was no evidence that help was abating.
Rumsfeld said U.S. forces in Iraq had reported that they had shut down a pipeline that carried oil from Iraq to Syria in violation of U.N. sanctions.
"Whether it's the only one, and whether that has completely stopped the flow of oil between Iraq and Syria, I cannot tell you," Rumsfeld told reporters. "We do not have perfect knowledge."
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was "concerned that recent statements directed at Syria should not contribute to a wider destabilization in a region already affected heavily by the war in Iraq."
Key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf region criticized the Bush administration Tuesday 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," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Thani told reporters after 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.
-- Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.