DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria will not give asylum to Iraqis wanted for war crimes and will expel any Iraqi who crosses into the country, President Bashar Assad told two U.S. congressman Sunday, the lawmakers said.
Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., were the first U.S. officials to meet Assad since the recent escalation of U.S.-Syrian tensions. In an interview with The Associated Press, they described a calm Assad who is eager to address U.S. concerns raised since the Iraq war.
Washington accuses Syria of sponsoring terrorism and harboring ousted members of Saddam Hussein's regime, and told Damascus to stop it or face diplomatic or economic sanctions.
"It's not an angry attitude with which he approaches these issues, but one of, 'Hey, let's discuss them face-to-face,"' said Rahall.
"He shares concerns and interests with America in this part of the world and wants to pursue in the right direction what we all want to see — peace, a nuclear and chemical weapons-free area and the advancement of the peace process," Rahall said.
Also Sunday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Damascus for a meeting with Assad. The tension between the United States and Syria has concerned many in the region. 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.
The congressmen's two-hour meeting with Assad came ahead of a trip that Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to the region, including Syria.
Issa said the congressmen's trip was aimed at trying to "move a positive dialogue and to promote ... a better engagement between Secretary Powell" and the Syrians.
"We were doing what we can to create the opportunity for the kind of dialogue that leads to positive change in behavior on both sides," the U.S. lawmaker said.
Rahall said he believed tensions would "de-escalate" after Powell's trip and "that we will see the mutual interest of both countries benefit from it."
Issa said Assad gave the two congressmen a "twofold and absolute" assurance that Syria will not give asylum to any wanted Iraqis and that it will expel anyone who comes to Syria.
Rahall said the president told them the Syrians have a list of wanted Iraqi war criminals they will not allow into the country — a list longer than the one Washington has compiled.
"So, there's no asylum being granted to any war criminals in Syria," said Rahall.
He described U.S. allegations that Syria has received Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as "ridiculous," while Issa said Assad had denied those claims.
The two officials also said they urged Assad to shut down the offices of Palestinian factions based in Syria — Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Washington lists both as terrorist groups.
Washington also considers the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which Syria has used as a proxy in its conflict with Israel, to be a terror organization.
Issa said Assad told them if the Mideast issue is settled, groups like Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups will "by definition fade away."