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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 13:36 GMT
Syria talks despite US sanctions
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (centre)
Syria has been accused by the US of aiding terrorists
Syria says it will continue dialogue with the United States despite a new threat of sanctions on Damascus.

Information Minister Ahmad al-Hassan said US "hawks" had stepped up their campaign against Syria, but his country would not "close the door" to talks.

On Tuesday, the US Senate approved the Syria bill which is expected to be signed by President George W Bush soon.

It threatens punitive measures if Syria is found to be backing terror groups or acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Senators backed the bill after a similar show of support in the House of Representatives in October. The Senate, however, has amended the document, meaning it must now go back to the House.

Iraq worries

"Syria will not close the door on dialogue with the American administration, even if the hawks in that administration want to push for escalation in an unjustifiable way," Mr al-Hassan said in remarks carried by the Syrian press.

"The threats against Syria are not new, but they have intensified recently," the minister said.

He accused the US of trying to replace the United Nations.

The government-run al-Thawra newspaper said the "unjust" bill was taken to punish Syria for its support for the Palestinian people.

It warned that it would not alleviate the crisis faced by US forces in the region.

The Syrian Times also said the US wanted to blame Syria for the difficulties they were facing in Iraq.

In an editorial, the paper said President Bush, in the face of presidential elections next year, "needs someone to throw responsibility on as a way to attract Americans' attention away from his many failures".

Calibration duty

Under the amended bill - passed by 89 votes to four - President George W Bush will have more power to waive the economic and diplomatic sanctions if he deems it in the national interest.

It permits the president to "calibrate US sanctions against Syria in response to positive Syrian behaviour", explained Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The bill bans any US trade with Syria in items which could be used in weapons programmes.

It also allows the president to choose at least two other sanctions such as barring US businesses from investing in Syria, restricting travel in the US by Syrian diplomats or banning exports of US products other than food and medicine to Syria.

Trade between the two countries is paltry - around $150m a year - and Syria receives no US foreign aid.

And the biggest losers could be American companies who have been recently been contracted by Damascus to explore for oil, says the BBC's Michael Buchanan in Washington.

The Bush administration was at one stage reluctant to pursue sanctions against Syria despite Congressional support but it changed its stance after accusing Damascus of failing to curb Palestinian and Lebanese guerrilla groups.

US officials have also voiced concern that foreign militants fighting the US-led coalition in Iraq enter the country from Syrian territory.

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