DAMASCUS, Syria – The U.S. State Department's second-ranking official on Sunday said Syria had improved security along its border with Iraq but needs to do more to keep armed supporters of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from sneaking across.
"Syria has made some real improvements in recent months on border security. But we all need to do more, particularly on the question of former regime elements participating in activities in Iraq, going back and forth from Syria," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (search) told reporters in Damascus.
Armitage arrived in Syria Sunday for talks with officials here on Syria's alleged role in the Iraqi insurgency and the infiltration of fighters across the Syrian border into Iraq. Syria has denied the charges.
After a short stop at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Armitage headed straight for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. He was accompanied by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State William Burns.
U.S.-Syria relations have been strained over U.S. accusations that Syria was meddling in Iraqi affairs, as well as Syria's involvement in neighboring Lebanon. A few months ago, Washington imposed sanctions on Syria under an act that accuses Damascus (search) of seeking weapons of mass destruction, a charge Syria denies, and hosting Palestinian groups Washington deems terrorist.
In September, the U.N. Security Council (search) passed a resolution introduced by Washington and Paris calling on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and dismantle the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group.
More recently, U.S. President George W. Bush has warned Syria and Iran against "meddling" in the internal affairs of Iraq.
Washington and Baghdad have said that key support for the insurgency was coming from a half brother of Saddam Hussein and Baath Party leaders based in Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has said he had "adequate and accurate information" about Iraqis planning attacks from Syria and has sent a letter to Assad asking the Syrian authorities to hand over "wanted elements and those accused of planning and executing" attacks to Iraqi authorities.
Al-Sharaa denied the charges earlier this week.
Measures to combat the insurgency are taking on increasing importance for both Iraq and the United States as the Jan. 30 national elections in Iraq rapidly approach. The insurgents are trying to disrupt the elections.
Armitage said he stressed to the Syrian leadership the "absolute importance" of the Iraqi elections and the need to have full Iraqi participation. "I believe I found here in Syria the same view," he said.
Armitage also said he called on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and warned Syria against interfering in parliamentary elections due to be held in Lebanon in May.
Syria, with some 14,000 troops stationed in Lebanon, is the main power broker in that country. There have been growing international and local calls in Lebanon for Syria to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.
Syria's official news agency SANA said Assad discussed with the U.S. delegation "the situation in Iraq and the political process there, including the elections." It said the two sides also discussed the Mideast peace process.
Armitage, who will also travel to Jordan and Turkey, which also border Iraq, arrived here from northern Iraq, where he paid a surprise visit.