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Facing US sanctions, Syria responds with olive branch

Thursday, Syria supported a US-backed Security Council resolution on postwar Iraq, which passed unanimously.

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Syrian-US relations have hit an all-time low with the House of Representatives passing a bill that calls for sweeping sanctions against Damascus.

The one-sided 398-4 vote Wednesday came as no surprise, given the depth of mistrust between the two countries. But analysts say that sanctions will have little economic effect on Damascus, are unlikely to herald significant changes in Syrian policy, and could backfire on US interests in Iraq.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad struck a defiant pose Thursday, describing the Bush administration as a group of "fanatics" and warmongers.

But Syria offered an olive branch Thursday by backing a US-proposed United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at securing broader international backing for the reconstruction of Iraq. US diplomats had expected Syria to abstain from the vote at best. The resolution passed unanimously.

Meanwhile, the House's Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act calls on Damascus to drop its backing of militant anti-Israel groups, like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Lebanon's Hizbullah organization; cease its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction; and withdraw its forces from neighboring Lebanon. The bill, the latest version of which was drawn up in April, also calls on Syria to end its illegal trade in oil and weapons with Iraq - demands that have become redundant since the downfall of Hussein's regime.

Still, Washington accuses Damascus of not doing enough to block volunteer fighters from entering Iraq. On Tuesday, US troops clashed with a group who had allegedly infiltrated Iraq from Syria. Some of the infiltrators were killed in the battle, and a US military helicopter was forced to land after being hit by small-arms fire. US officials also have reportedly demanded the return of some $3 billion in stolen assets deposited in Syrian banks by the former Iraqi president, a charge Damascus denies.

"Diplomacy with the Syrian regime has failed miserably," Rep. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen (R) of Fla., chair of the House International Relations Middle East subcommittee. "It's time to reinforce our words with concrete, tangible, and punitive measures."

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