WASHINGTON – Syria is reacting positively to U.S. complaints that it is harboring members of the ousted Iraqi government, turning some away at the border and possibly preparing to quietly expel others, officials say.
"There might be some individuals who might be made available to us," a State Department official said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another government official, also declining to be identified by name, said there are signs Syria has tightened controls on its border following Washington's criticism, with some members of the Saddam Hussein regime turned away at the border.
Nothing appears final, officials said, and no expulsions were expected Friday.
Intelligence reports have suggested some Iraqi leaders have reached Syria, including Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia and a former senior intelligence operative, and possibly Saddam Hussein's first wife, Sajida Khairallah Telfah.
The Syrians have come under intense pressure from the Bush administration since reports surfaced that some Iraqis had crossed the border fleeing the U.S.-led war.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that if members of Saddam's government turn up in Syria, "We hope ... the Syrians will do the correct thing, the right thing, in our judgment, and return them back to Iraq so they can stand before justice administered by the Iraqi people."
He spoke on PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
It was unclear what, if any, negotiations were under way between the United States, its allies and Syria, regarding the Iraqi leaders, but Powell and Syrian officials have acknowledged the governments are in communication.
Syria has denied taking in any senior Iraqi officials.
Powell said he plans to go to Damascus for talks with President Bashar Assad.
Questioning top members of Saddam's government remains a key goal because they may have information on other Iraqi leaders as well as Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Two top scientists are being questioned by U.S. authorities, but it is unclear whether they are providing any useful information.
Some security and intelligence operatives, including Hijazi, may also be able to detail any Iraqi links to terrorist groups. Hijazi went to Afghanistan in late 1998 and reportedly met with Osama bin Laden, officials said.
Two of Saddam's half brothers have been detained.
Many other leaders, however, remain unaccounted for, including several military and security chiefs. Among them are most of the face cards in the deck of Iraqi leaders distributed by the U.S. military.
--Abid Hamid Mahmud, Saddam's presidential secretary.
--Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council.
--Aziz Salih, chairman of Baath Party regional command.
--Hami Abd al-Latif Tilfah, director of the Special Security Organization, Iraq's primary internal security service
--Kamal Mustafa Abdallah, secretary of the Republican Guard.
--Sayf Al-Din Fulayyih Hasan Taha, chief of staff of the Republican Guard.
--Tahir Jalil Habbush, director the Iraqi Mukhabarat, or intelligence service.
--Barzan Abd al-Ghafur Sulayman Majid, commander of the Special Republican Guard.