The U.S. has shut down a key oil pipeline that was pumping as many as 200,000 gallons a day from Iraq into Syria.
The pipeline had operated under the Saddam Hussein regime in violation of United Nations sanctions. Syria traded food with Iraq and received oil at what were essentially bargain-basement prices.
“Whether it’s the only one and whether that has completely stopped the flow of oil between Iraq and Syria, I cannot tell you,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “We do not have perfect knowledge.”
The move constitutes Washington’s first concrete action against Iraq’s western neighbor and could deal a significant blow to Syria’s economy, which relies on cheap oil from its neighbor. It came a day after Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer all offered stern criticism of Syria. President Bush expressed similar sentiments over the weekend.
Specifically, the administration accuses Syria of harboring former members of the Iraqi regime, developing weapons of mass destruction and exporting terrorism. The administration used much of the same rhetoric and rationale for justifying the current military action in Iraq. But Powell played down the possibility of military strikes on Syria on Tuesday.
“Iraq was a unique case, where it wasn’t just a matter of a dictator being there,” he said. “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.”
At another point in the day, however, Powell appeared to leave the door open to military strikes, saying the U.S. has no war plans for Syria “right now.”
For its part, Syria has denied the U.S. charges and said Israeli interests are driving Bush administration policy.
“Even the Israelis will pay the price for it in the future if they don’t tell their friends in Washington to stop it,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said recently.
Al-Sharaa later said his government was willing to sign a treaty outlawing weapons of mass destruction. “The Syrian government is ready to sign a treaty under U.N. supervision to make the whole Middle East a zone free from all mass destruction weapons, nuclear, chemical and biological,” he said during an interview for broadcast on Australian television.
Other nations in the Middle East have also come to the defense of Syria in recent days.
Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami called on the United States on Wednesday to stop threatening Syria and said a U.S. military attack on Iraq’s western neighbor was not likely. “Our advice to the Americans is to abandon such threats,” Khatami said. “We reject U.S. threats and allegations about ourselves, and I think the same goes with Syria.”
A six-nation coalition of states known as the Gulf Cooperation Council on Tuesday also criticized what it perceived as U.S. threats against Syria. “We reject the threats against Syria and we believe that the threats should stop,” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani told reporters in Saudi Arabia. Qatar is one the United States’ closest allies in the region and is currently home to U.S. Central Command military headquarters.
Other recent developments:
Radio Tikrit has been part of the anti-Saddam psychological operation — or “psyops” — since mid-February. Its signal was picked up by BBC monitoring and is believed to be broadcast from a CIA transmitter in Kuwait.
— Ethan Zindler