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Syria dismisses Iraqi official's charge of supporting insurgents

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria yesterday rejected Iraqi accusations that it and Iran were supporting Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in Iraq.

The comments from the Syrian Foreign Ministry came a day after Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said that Iranian and Syrian intelligence agents, plus former operatives from Saddam Hussein's security forces, were cooperating with the Al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that is led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

President Bush also warned Iran and Syria, saying that "meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interest."

The Syrian Foreign Ministry dismissed Shaalan's accusations as "baseless." It did not refer to Bush's remarks.

"Syria sees the repeat of fabricated accusations as reflecting the wish of some people to hide the real reasons behind the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, and to mislead the public opinion," the ministry said in a statement faxed to the Associated Press office in Damascus.

General George Casey, the chief of the multinational force in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon later yesterday that he regards Syria as a greater short-term threat to Iraq's stability and national elections than Iran.

A group of senior members of Iraq's regime, based in Syria, are sending money and support to insurgents, he said. The Syrian government, although it has taken some steps to clamp down on low-level fighters, has done nothing against the senior officials, who call themselves the "New Regional Command," Casey said.

"They are not going after the big fish, which is really the people that we're interested in," Casey said.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry statement said that Syria "supports Iraq's security and stability and the upcoming election process" -- a reference to the Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

The ministry said Syria wanted "to work within our capabilities to control the borders" against militants trying to infiltrate into Iraq.

"We have already declared our readiness to cooperate and coordinate with the interim Iraqi government in this regard and in other security aspects," it said.

Iraq's stability is not only in Iraq's interest, "but also in the interest of Syria and the entire region," it said.

Iran did not respond to the Iraqi defense minister's comment. Shaalan has previously accused Tehran of interfering in Iraq's affairs. Iran has denied the charge.

Syria, a staunch opponent of the US-led invasion of Iraq last year, repeatedly has rejected Iraqi and US accusations that it is not doing enough to control its long desert border with Iraq.

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