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May 03, 2003

POWELL VISIT: US to tell Syria to recognize new reality

I am not convinced this duplicitous dictator can change. So many arab leaders in the region use an anti-Israeli stance to take the heat off their own corrupt regimes
MADRID -- Secretary of State Colin Powell, meeting yesterday with Spanish leaders, said he will urge Syria to review its foreign policy after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

As he prepared for his trip to the Middle East today, Powell also urged Israelis and Palestinians to push forward on a new ''road map'' for peace that was unveiled Wednesday.

At a press conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, Powell said he will press Syrian President Bashar Assad to recognize ''a new strategic dynamic'' in the Middle East and the ''new and different kind of neighbor'' being developed in Iraq.

''I will encourage them to review these changes and take a look at some of their past policies and see whether those policies seem to be relevant in light of the changed situation,'' Powell said.

Powell, who stopped in Madrid to discuss Spain's role as a mediator and US partner in the region, is scheduled to visit Syria and Lebanon today and tomorrow. In both countries, he plans to discuss the development of a new government in Iraq and the implementation of the Middle East peace plan unveiled by international mediators earlier this week.

The secretary is expected to return to the Middle East in the coming weeks to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Cooperation from Syria is crucial to the peace process because of the country's historic anti-Israeli policies, its influence in Lebanon, and its links with anti-Israeli groups that are considered terrorists by the US government, including Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Tensions with Damascus were exacerbated during the US-led campaign in Iraq, during which Washington accused the Syrian government of harboring Hussein aides and allowing volunteers to cross its borders to help defend Iraq.

The meetings in Damascus will be the first high-level discussions on the region since the end of Hussein's regime. Although Powell said he expected ''no specific result,'' from the talks, he said: ''We hope to have a full and candid conversation.''

After a lunch with Palacio at a forest palace north of Madrid, the secretary said the stop in the Spanish capital reflects US support of a continued role for Spain as its ally in the Middle East. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who hosted Powell for dinner at his official residence last night, was the most visible of the handful of European Union leaders supporting President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in their effort to topple Hussein.

''Aznar and President Bush have remained in close touch,'' Powell said. ''And we look forward to continue working with Spain as we rebuild and put a democratic form of government'' in Iraq.

Palacio said Spain will continue supporting the US, financially and administratively, in reconstructing Iraq and its government. She did not disclose how much money the Spanish government would contribute to the efforts, but she highlighted the civil servants and police officers it has committed to help reestablish order following the war.

Palacio used the occasion to once again highlight Madrid's desire to play an important part in the broader Middle East peace process. Spain, a country with deep historic ties to the Arab world, continues to maintain healthy relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan.

Madrid hosted the meeting in 1991, after the first Gulf War, at which Israel met with its Arab neighbors to kickstart the negotiations that helped stabilize the region until violence erupted anew between Israelis and Palestinians in September 2000.

Holding the rotating EU presidency during the first half of 2002, Madrid also served as the site at which the United States, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations -- dubbed the ''quartet'' -- developed the new plan for the Middle East.

Aznar's administration has sought to maintain its involvement in the peace process. ''We are enjoying a moment of enormous hope and enormous satisfaction after a period of skepticism and doubts over the peace process,'' Palacio said.

Despite a Palestinian suicide bombing Wednesday and an Israeli military incursion into Gaza yesterday, Powell said violence should not disrupt the road map to peace.

''We can't let these sorts of incidents immediately contaminate the road map,'' he said.