updated 12/28/2004 9:30:41 PM ET 2004-12-29T02:30:41

Syria is responding with a mixture of bravado and denial to mounting accusations by the United States and Iraq that it’s a staging ground for the Iraqi insurgency with key support coming from a half-brother of Saddam Hussein and Baath Party leaders here.

Damascus has accused Washington of making it a scapegoat for American failures to quell the fighting in Iraq — even as Syria moves to try and defuse tensions with the United States.

Syria’s Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa struck a defiant tone during an address at the annual meeting of leaders of the National Progressive Front — considered the country’s highest ruling body — in the most extensive comments yet by a senior Syrian official on the subject.

“They accuse Syria of sending money and arms,” he said, but the Iraqi people “have plenty of money and arms and we are the ones who worry about the movement of arms from Iraq to Syria.”

Al-Sharaa said the United States succeeded in occupying Iraq, “but it has failed at everything else. The problem is that the United States had thought it was making progress in Iraq. But it started to see a change in the past two months and therefore the campaign against Syria comes within the framework of the pressure the occupation forces in Iraq feel.”

Warnings for Syria, Iran
President Bush has warned Syria and Iran — also accused of supporting the insurgency — that “meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interest.” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is expected in Syria Sunday to discuss Iraq with Syrian officials.

Washington and Baghdad have for months been saying that Syria is allowing Islamic militants bent on fighting U.S.-led coalition forces and the Iraqi interim government to cross the border into Iraq. Unlimited funds for the insurgency also are thought to come from Syria, as well as from Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to U.S. officials.

The suspicions of outside support for militants in Iraq has strained the uneasy relationship between Syria and the United States, who have long differed over the Arab-Israeli conflict. A few months ago, Washington imposed sanctions on Syria under an act that accuses Damascus of seeking weapons of mass destruction and hosting Palestinian groups Washington deems terrorist.

Allawi speaks out
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi also has stepped up criticism of Damascus, saying he had “adequate and accurate information” about Iraqis planning attacks from Syria.

In an interview with Radio Sawa, Allawi said Monday that he has sent a letter to Syrian President Bashar Assad asking the Syrian authorities to hand over “wanted elements and those accused of planning and executing” attacks to Iraqi authorities.

Asked whether he believes there’s a link between terrorist groups in Syria and groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq and Ansar al-Islam, Allawi said “for sure there are communications among all those terrorists, which part of its leadership is living in Syria. ... However, we don’t know if Syria is playing a role, and I hope it doesn’t.”

Qassem Dawoud, Iraq’s national security adviser, called on Syria to turn in former Baathists who are helping insurgents in remarks published Tuesday in Kuwait’s Al-Rai Al-Aam daily.

He said the Iraqi interim government has evidence that Sabaawi al-Hassan, a half-brother of Saddam, and leading Baathist Younis al-Ahmed are supporting the insurgency from Syria.

Dawoud said Iraq will officially ask Damascus to hand in these “criminals” and he hoped Syria would respond positively so Baghdad wouldn’t “have to go to international organizations” to extradite them. Dawoud said Islamic extremists make up some 15 percent of militants operating in Iraq, claiming most of them come through Syria.

Ghaleb al-Jazaeri, the police commander in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf, said Saturday that an Iraqi had confessed to receiving training in a camp in Syria under the supervision of a Syrian military officer — a claim the Syrians denied.

Syria seeks to demonstrate innocence
In response to the stream of accusations, Syria has gone out of its way to try to demonstrate its innocence. Last month, it took journalists on an unusual tour of a section of its 380-mile border with Iraq, showing them bulldozers making a 4-yard-high barrier along the frontier and saying they were using round-the-clock patrols and new observation posts to try to stop foreign fighters from getting into Iraq.

Syria has also held talks with a U.S.-led coalition military delegation on the matter and is discussing with Baghdad what do to about Iraq money frozen from the Saddam regime — estimated at $261 million stashed in Syrian banks.

Al-Sharaa, the Syrian foreign minister, said some Kuwaitis have wondered why Syria supported the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq when Saddam’s forces invaded the tiny emirate in 1990 — but opposed last year’s war, also led by the United States, against Saddam’s regime.

In 1990, “We considered America to be right ... and we were against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait as we are against any kind of occupation,” he said. “That’s why from the start we were against the occupation of Iraq and there is no going back on this stand.”

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