Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday the Bush administration had begun a "very vigorous diplomatic exchange" with Syria and he intended to go to Damascus for talks with President Bashar Assad on tensions with Iraq's wartime ally.

Insisting anew that Syria expel officials of the fallen Iraqi government who crossed the border, Powell said in an interview, "Syria does not want to be a safe haven in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom."

But rather than distancing the Bush administration from the Arab government that aligned itself with Saddpain.

In fact, Powell told Associated Press Television News he had spoken earlier in the day with Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio "about messages she might deliver" when she goes to Damascus this weekend.

Beyond that, Powell said, "I would expect to travel to Syria to have very candid and straightforward discussions with my foreign minister colleague [Farouk al-Sharaa] and with President Bashar Assad."

He did not say when he intended to visit Damascus, but indicated the stop would be part of a broader trip designed to spur peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.

Powell said once a roadmap for such peacemaking was announced, "we will see a much more active American engagement for the simple reason we now have a prime minister on the Palestinian side that we can work with."

"We do have a new situation," Powell said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the designated prime minister, and Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.

"And so you will see us become more active, both with my own involvement and travels as well as in other ways," Powell said.

"The president will be much more deeply involved and much more active," he added.

For three decades, U.S. presidents have sought to engage Syria in peacemaking with Israel. Even during a recent flurry of U.S. accusations that Syria was assisting Saddam with military technology and providing refuge to Iraqi officials, Powell spoke of such hopes.

He has been to Syria twice in what so far has been an inconclusive Bush administration attempt to reopen Mideast peace talks.

On another subject, Powell expressed satisfaction that his six-month effort to promote talks with North Korea on nuclear actions in a multilateral setting had achieved results.

"This is good news," Powell said, referring to the discussions that will be held in coming days in Beijing, where envoys from the United States, North Korea and China will convene.

North Korea had been holding out for face-to-face talks with the United States but signaled last weekend its acceptance of a broader forum.

The administration has decided to dispatch Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly for the discussions. No date has been set.

Powell said he does not anticipate a breakthrough in the talks.

"We believe this is the beginning of a long, intense process of discussion," Powell said.

"We will lay out clearly our concerns about their nuclear weapons development programs and other weapons of mass destruction, of their proliferation activities, missile programs," among other issues, he said.

On Iraq, Powell said he did not know whether Saddam was dead or alive. "The fact of the matter is, though, he is gone. Whether he is dead or alive, he is gone. He is no longer in the lives of the people of Iraq."

In postwar Iraq, he said, the United States would act as the military authority for now in Baghdad. However, he added, "as quickly as we can, we want to transition this more and more to civilian authorities" led by Jay M. Garner, the retired U.S. lieutenant general who heads the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, "and as quickly as we can after that, move it to the Iraqi people themselves."

The meeting Tuesday in Ur of Iraqi factions that had opposed Saddam was a good start, Powell said. "They want to build the right kind of country and the right kind of government,"

On Cuba, Powell expressed hope that the U.N. Human Rights Commission would approve a tough resolution censuring Cuba for its rights record. The vote in the 53-member commission is scheduled for Thursday.

He said he has called foreign ministers from nations that are commission members to make clear the importance he attaches to holding Cuba to account for its recent crackdown on dissidents.

Powell said the scores of Cuban dissidents who recently were sentenced to long prison terms were "just speaking out and trying to exercise their democratic rights -- human rights -- of free speech, and they are being thrown in jail for 10, 15, 20 years."