Despite Syria's insistence that it has not allowed senior Iraqi officials to cross its borders, the Bush administration has reason to believe several key figures in Saddam Hussein's regime may have already found refuge there, Fox News has learned.
U.S. officials announced Wednesday that Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia and once the No. 3 man in the Mukhabarat, Saddam's intelligence service, had surfaced in Syria. Officials told Fox News they believe Hijazi arrived in Damascus from Tunisia the previous day.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthayna Shaaban denied that Hijazi was in Syria and said no other Iraqis had fled there, either.
"What Syria says is what Syria does," Shaaban said. "When Syria says its borders are closed, it means the borders are closed. When Syria says it did not allow any symbol of the Iraqi regime to come here, it means that it did not allow anyone to come here."
Hijazi served as the director of external operations for the Mukhabarat in the mid-1990s, when the Iraqi intelligence agency allegedly attempted to assassinate the elder President Bush during a visit to Kuwait.
And in December 1998, while he was Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, Hijazi traveled to Afghanistan and reportedly met with Usama bin Laden, officials in Washington said. Details of the meeting are not known, but American officials have pointed to it as an Iraqi link to Al Qaeda.
In recent days, senior U.S. officials, including President Bush, have accused Syria of providing Iraq with war materiel, giving haven to senior Iraqi officials and permitting foreign fighters to join the war against the U.S.-led coalition.
The charges have raised concerns that Syria could be the next U.S. target.
Though it may look like relations have soured, both U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Shaaban said Syria and the United States are engaged in an active dialogue. Powell, in an interview with Associated Press Television News, said he expected to travel to Damascus soon and said the two sides had a "very vigorous diplomatic exchange."
"Lots of messages have been passed back and forth" between Washington and Damascus through U.S. Ambassador Theodore Kattouf, and via Britain, France and Spain, Powell said, though he warned Syria not to harbor officials from Saddam's regime.
On Tuesday, Powell also said there was no plan "to go and attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values."
Shaaban's assessment was also positive.
"Things are not so bad. ... The diplomatic channels are much quieter and much more constructive," she said. "I really take all these statements with a positive tinge to them. The objective is to engage and talk about issues rather than to threaten."
Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity Tuesday, said Syria had been quietly helpful in the war against the Al Qaeda terror network and there was no evidence that help was abating.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Wednesday that his government was prepared to sign a U.N.-authorized treaty that would declare the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. Syria, the only Arab nation on the Security Council, said it would present to the council a draft resolution on such a treaty on behalf of the 21 Arab member states.
Al-Sharaa told the Australian broadcast service SBS that it would be better "for every citizen on Earth" if the Middle East were free of such weapons.
Al-Sharaa also said his country did not recruit or train the Syrians who recently crossed into Iraq to fight for President Saddam Hussein's regime.
Shaaban said that the accusations from U.S. leaders were initiated in Israel and called them "absolutely groundless."
Asked about U.S. forces shutting down a pipeline used for oil shipments from Iraq to Syria despite U.N. trade restrictions, Shaaban said: "We lived without the Iraqi pipeline for 20 years. We could live for another 20 years. There'd be no problem."
Syrian and Iraqi officials have routinely denied oil was being transferred through a pipeline between the countries, though the shipments were an open secret for years.
In early 2001, Powell confronted Syrian President Bashar Assad, who promised to start declaring Syria's Iraqi oil to the United Nations to ensure the cash went to the oil-for-food program rather than to Saddam's regime.
But Assad never followed through, and Syria continued to import 150,000 to 180,000 barrels of inexpensive Iraqi crude a day -- exporting whatever it did not consume at market prices and pocketing the difference.
Fox News' Bret Baier, Teri Schultz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.