Sharon Calls Assad Dangerous, Urges U.S. Pressure
By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters - 15 April) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dangerous and prone to risky mistakes, has urged the United States to turn up the heat on Damascus.
Sharon's fiery comments in a newspaper interview published on Tuesday were accompanied by a surge of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in which three Palestinian gunmen, two Israeli civilians and an Israeli army officer were killed.
The bloodshed, including shootouts in a freight terminal on the Israel-Gaza border and at a hideout used by Hamas militants in the West Bank, cast a new shadow on U.S. hopes of implementing a new plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace following the Iraq war.
"Bashar Assad is dangerous. His judgment is impaired," Sharon told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, adding his voice to a chorus of U.S. allegations that Syria is harboring Iraqi leaders, developing chemical weapons and supporting terrorism.
"In the Iraq war (Assad) proved he was incapable of drawing conclusions from very obvious facts," Sharon said.
"Anyone with eyes in his head would have known that Iraq was going to be on the losing side. But Assad thought the United States was going to fail."
Syria's cabinet on Tuesday denounced the accusation that it was developing chemical weapons as "threats and falsifications" designed to further Israeli "goals and expansive greed."
Sharon called on the United States to put "heavy pressure" on Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, to oust Hizbollah guerrillas from southern Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups from Damascus.
The Israeli leader said Assad could also miscalculate when it came to Israel. "He has a force that is under his thumb -- Hizbollah -- and that is dangerous," he added.
Sharon repeated charges he made before the start of the U.S.-led Iraq campaign that Baghdad had moved military equipment to Syria on the eve of the war, either to hide the weapons from U.S. forces or to transfer them to Hizbollah.
But he stopped short of advocating military action against Syria, saying a squeeze could come through diplomacy or economic sanctions.
Hizbollah, a militant Islamic group backed by Syria and Iran, has long been a thorn in Israel's side, carrying out daily guerrilla attacks that led to the withdrawal in 2000 of the Israeli army from a south Lebanon zone it occupied since 1978.
In the Gaza Strip, a Hamas gunman hurled hand grenades and sprayed automatic weapons fire in the Karni freight terminal on the border with Israel.
Two Israeli workers were killed and three wounded before soldiers and armed guards shot the attacker dead, the army said.
Hamas's armed wing called it a revenge attack.
"The Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades gives this attack as a present to the souls of hero martyrs who had ascended to God during the bombardment of the car carrying the Qassam leader Sa'ed al-Arbeed," the group said in a statement.
Arbeed, his deputy and five other Palestinians were killed a week ago in an Israeli air raid in Gaza that targeted his car.
Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic group which opposes Israel's existence, has killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings during the 30-month Palestinian uprising for statehood.
Earlier on Tuesday, Israeli soldiers killed a Hamas gunman when he shot at troops who came to arrest him and two other militants hiding in an apartment building in the West Bank city of Nablus.
An army lieutenant was shot dead in the incident, another soldier was wounded and two of the wanted men were taken into custody, the army said.
In other violence, a militant from the Islamic Jihad group was killed by rockets fired from an Israeli army watchtower in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, witnesses said.
At least 1,993 Palestinians and 732 Israelis have been killed since the uprising began in September 2000 after peace talks on a Palestinian state froze.