WASHINGTON – As President Bush and his aides plot how best to capitalize on the swift military success in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell is planning a trip to Syria to discourage that nation from any acts that would appear threatening to U.S. interests.
One such action is the harboring of several high-ranking Iraqi leaders who are said to have fled to Syria. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated that assertion earlier this week. The Defense Department alleged during the war with Iraq that Syria was providing military technology to its neighbor. Bush has also accused Syria of having chemical weapons.
Those concerns forced Powell to threaten more sanction on Syria -- already listed on the State Department's tally of nations supporting terrorism.
U.S. officials say the tough approach appears to be paying off, at least in terms of diplomatic communications. Though Powell said he expects to travel there for "very candid and straightforward discussions," the administration has not given a date when that conversation will take place and says it will be tied to regional peace talks.
Powell said any travel to the country would be strictly contingent on better behavior by Syria.
"We have provided some information to the Syrians that there are individuals that we believe are in Syria who should be returned to Iraq so that they can be held for the justice of the Iraqi people. We have been candid with the Syrians and we have also made it clear to the Syrians that we don't think it would be in their interests to be a draw to people who are either trying to get out of Iraq or get out of other places in the world and find a safe haven," Powell said in an interview Wednesday.
However, officials tell Fox News that despite Syria's denials, they can name Iraqi officials who are seeking refuge in the country. One such outlaw is Farouk Hijazi, the former Iraqi intelligence officer who is said to have arrived on Wednesday.
Hijazi was an adviser to Saddam Hussein and was the No. 3 man in Iraq's intelligence agency. He served as director of external operations for Iraqi intelligence in the mid-1990s when that agency allegedly tried to assassinate the former President Bush during a trip to Kuwait.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa has said that better cooperation does exist behind the scenes between the United States and Syria, quite a bit more than is being reported. On Thursday, Al-Sharaa called for the United States to withdraw from Iraq and said he is worried that Syria will be wrongly targeted by U.S. forces. He said a visit by Powell would be helpful.
"If he is intending to visit Damascus, he is welcome because I believe that the dialogue between the two countries is important," Al-Sharaa said.
Foreign ministers of U.S. allies Britain, France and Spain have met with Bashar Assad's government in Syria recently. Powell said he has been sending "lots of messages" through them.
Spain's foreign minister Ana Palacio is scheduled to go to Syria this weekend and Powell has already spoken with her about what he would like relayed to the Assad government, he said.
On Friday, Syrian leaders meet with other Iraqi neighbors to discuss a post-Saddam Mideast.
Powell has not yet set a date for his trip, but officials say it would likely be part of a larger trip through the Mideast after the release of the Palestinian-Israeli roadmap for peace.
That roadmap is expected in the next couple of weeks, and is hinging on the confirmation of new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
Powell said once a roadmap for such peacemaking is 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."
Powell has twice visited Syria in what has been considered an inconclusive attempt to reopen Mideast peace talks.
Fox News' Caroline Shively, Shames Rosen and Bret Baier contributed to this report.