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US ready to accept Syria sanctions bill

WASHINGTON -- State Department officials said yesterday that diplomatic efforts with Syria have shown little success and they are prepared to support a sanctions bill that Congress is close to passing.

"We have to recognize that we have some quite significant problems in our relationship," William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The House has passed the bill, and the Senate could follow suit next week. The Senate sponsors have agreed to include an amendment that would give President Bush the flexibility he seeks to waive the sanctions on national security grounds.

Burns told senators he appreciated efforts to get the broader waiver. But after the hearing, he stopped short of saying Bush would sign the bill: "Our position remains that we don't oppose passage of the legislation. We'll take a careful look at the language that ultimately emerges."

The United States accuses Syria of sponsoring terrorism, occupying Lebanon, and not doing enough to secure its border with Iraq. Washington says Damascus has allowed figures from Saddam Hussein's toppled government to enter Syria and has allowed anti-American fighters to make their way to Iraq.

That creates the potential for weapons of mass destruction to be smuggled to Iraq. But Cofer Black, the top counterterrorism official at the State Department, said there is no information the Syrian government has provided those weapons to terrorist groups.

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