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DIPLOMACY

US presses Syrians on border security

Says strides made to stop insurgents

DAMASCUS, Syria -- The State Department's second in command said yesterday that Syria had improved security along its border with Iraq but needed to do more to keep armed supporters of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from sneaking across.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage arrived in Syria for talks with officials on Syria's alleged role in the Iraqi insurgency and the infiltration of fighters across the border into Iraq.

''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," Armitage told reporters in Damascus, the capital.

Armitage and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns met with Syria's president, Bashar Assad, and foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa.

Assad discussed ''the situation in Iraq and the political process there, including the elections," according to Syria's official news agency, SANA.

Measures to combat the movement of insurgents have taken on increasing importance as the Jan. 30 national elections in Iraq approach. US officials say the insurgents are using violence in an attempt to disrupt the vote for a constitutional assembly.

Washington and Baghdad both have said that key support for the insurgency was coming from a half-brother of Saddam Hussein and Ba'ath Party leaders based in Syria.

President Bush has warned Syria against meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq has said he had ''adequate and accurate information" about Iraqis planning attacks from Syria and has sent a letter to Assad asking Syrian authorities to hand over ''wanted elements and those accused of planning and executing" attacks.

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.

Relations with Syria have been strained over US accusations that Damascus was meddling in Iraqi affairs and over Syria's involvement in neighboring Lebanon. A few months ago, Washington imposed sanctions on Syria under an act accusing Damascus of seeking weapons of mass destruction, an allegation Syria denies.

In September, the UN Security Council 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.

Armitage also said he called on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and warned 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 calls for Syria to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.

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