FORT HOOD, Texas – President Bush applauded signs Sunday that Syria is beginning to heed American demands for cooperation against Saddam Hussein's defunct regime.
Lowering U.S. rhetoric that had led to speculation that Syria could become Bush's next military target, the president focused on diplomacy as a way to contain Syria.
"There's some positive signs," Bush said, after attending Easter services at the Army's Fort Hood not far from his ranch outside this central Texas town. "They're getting the message that they should not harbor Baath Party officials, high ranking Iraqi officials."
Tensions between the United States and Syria escalated after reports surfaced that members of Saddam's deposed government had crossed the border to flee the U.S.-led war.
U.S. officials have exerted intense pressure, demanding there be no haven in Syria for Saddam loyalists and telling Damascus that diplomatic or economic sanctions could result unless Syria cooperated.
Syria has denied taking in senior Iraqis or providing other aid.
Two senators agreed Sunday there have been positive developments but said the jury remains out on Syria.
"I think the military success in Iraq has had a profound effect everywhere," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said in a television interview. "Whether, at this point, Syria will take the next step really remains to be seen. But it's the best climate, the best opportunity in modern times."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., credited Syria with helping in the antiterror war against Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"There's been some evidence that they're moving toward a more cooperative position with the United States," Durbin said. "But ... you look at the history of Syria, its history of harboring international terrorist organizations in Damascus, of sending its army to occupy southern Lebanon and harass Israel. It's really not the kind of conduct which we can countenance as part of a peaceful future for the Middle East."
Bush used the past tense Sunday when asked for details on Iraqi leaders believed to be in Syria.
"We felt some were there; otherwise, we wouldn't have spoken out," he said.
Syrian President Bashar Assad told two U.S. congressmen Sunday that the country will not give asylum to war crimes suspects from Iraq and will expel any Iraqi who should cross the border. Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., visiting Damascus, described the Syrian president as eager to deal with U.S. concerns.
Bush said other countries, which he did not name, have helped press the U.S. message with the Syrians.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Damascus on Sunday for a meeting with Assad. At a meeting Friday in the Saudi capital, the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iran -- along with Egypt and Bahrain condemned U.S. threats against Syria.
Senior U.S. officials, including Bush, had accused Syria of providing Iraq with war materiel, giving haven to senior Iraqi officials and permitting foreign fighters to pass through Syria to join the war against the U.S.-led coalition.
Syria has been for years on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, hosting offices of Palestinian factions -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others -- that Washington lists as terrorist groups. The United States also considers the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which Syria has used as a proxy in its conflict with Israel, to be a terror organization.
But U.S. officials said last week that Syria appeared to be turning away some Iraqi officials at the border and possibly preparing quietly to expel others.
Secretary of State Colin Powell plans a trip to the region soon, with a stop planned in Syria.
"I'm confident the Syrian government has heard us," Bush said. "I believe it when they say they want to cooperate with us."