House Panel Approves Penalties Against Syria

House members on Wednesday imposed weapons sanctions and other penalties on Syria (search) after fresh allegations that the country sponsors terrorists.

"The time has come to hold Syria accountable for its actions," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., as the House International Relations Committee (search) approved sanctions legislation.

The United States considers Syria a state sponsor of terrorism, and officials are concerned it may be allowing activists to cross into Iraq to take up arms against U.S. soldiers.

"It has become increasingly clear which side Syria's government has chosen in the war on terror," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said.

The legislation, approved 33-2, bans the export of weapons and items that can be used in weapons programs into Syria.

President Bush also would have to choose two of the following sanctions: a ban on all U.S. exports to Syria except food or medicine; a ban of all U.S. business investment in Syria; restriction of Syrian diplomats in Washington and at the United Nations in New York City to a 25-mile radius; a ban on all Syrian-owned or -controlled aircraft from taking off, landing or flying over the United States; reduction of diplomatic contact with Syria; or freezing Syrian assets in the United States.

Those sanctions can be waived for "national security" reasons.

Israeli warplanes on Sunday bombed a camp in Syria in retaliation for a Palestinian homicide bombing attack that killed 19 Israelis. Israel said Syria was partly responsible, since Islamic Jihad (search) had offices in Damascus and Syria supports the group. Syria has said it had closed the offices of extremist Palestinian groups.

A naturalized U.S. citizen working as an Arabic translator at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, terrorist prison camp has been accused of spying, with plans to transmit secrets to an unspecified enemy in his native Syria.

"Syria is among the most dangerous, destabilizing countries in the Middle East," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y.

GOP Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who voted against the bill, said the Bush administration already has enough on its plate dealing with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea without trying to antagonize Syria.

"I do not see how we're going to take on another nation," Paul said.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., the other "no" vote, said he has no love for the "thugs" in the Syrian government. "I just am loath to use unilateral economic sanctions," he said. "I want the administration to have all the flexibility they need and this cuts back on their flexibility."

Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear to Syria last May that without some significant steps against terrorist groups there probably would be congressional legislation, spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"And that's what we are seeing unfold, because Syria hasn't taken any significant action against terrorist groups," he said.

The legislation now goes to the full House, where it is expected to pass easily.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana plans to hold a hearing on Syria relations before the end of the month, a spokesman said.