KUWAIT CITY – Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) said in an interview published Sunday that he doubts the existence of Al Qaeda, the terror group blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks and recent strikes in Saudi Arabia (search) and Morocco (search).
"Is there really an entity called Al Qaeda? Was it in Afghanistan? Does it exist now?" Assad asked, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba.
Usama bin Laden, the Saudi-born Islamic extremist who heads Al Qaeda, "cannot talk on the phone or use the Internet, but he can direct communications to the four corners of the world?" Assad said. "This is illogical."
Such speculation is popular among some in the Arab world who say Washington has manufactured or exaggerated the threat posed by Al Qaeda in order to paint Muslims as dangerous.
On Mideast matters, Assad complained that the United States put Israel at the center of its dealings with Arab states.
"America is happy with Syria and the Arab countries when Israel is happy with them," he said. "Israel is a state that occupies our land and we are required to take its interests into account? What logic is that? We say America is the effective power, our relationship should be direct with it."
Washington has long accused Syria of backing international terrorists, including militant Palestinian groups opposed to Israel. The United States stepped up pressure on Damascus during the U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Threatening sanctions, U.S. officials accused Syria of harboring terrorists and fleeing members of Iraq's ousted regime, possessing weapons of mass destruction and providing Iraq with military equipment. Syria denied the accusations.
Assad also told Al-Anba that Syrian forces will remain in Lebanon until a comprehensive peace settlement with Israel is reached, rebuffing recent U.S. calls for a Syrian troop withdrawal from the country.
Assad said Syria viewed Lebanon as an independent state and that Syrian troops were needed to confront potential Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Syria.