U.S. Says It Won't Rule Out Military Option Against Syria

Assad tells German weekly that Syria is '100 percent innocent' in Hariri killing; Rice meets with UN's Annan.

The United States on Wednesday refused to rule out possible military action against Syria but said it had not exhausted diplomatic moves to get Damascus to change its ways over Iraq and Lebanon.

Addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said both Syria and Iran were allowing fighters and military assistance to reach insurgents in Iraq.

"Syria and Iran must decide whether they wish to side with the cause of war or with the cause of peace," Rice told a hearing called to discuss U.S. strategy in Iraq, where more than 150,000 U.S. troops are struggling to end an insurgency.

Pressed by senators over whether the Bush administration was planning military action against Syria in particular, Rice said the United States was still on a "diplomatic course" with Damascus but the military option remained open.

"The president never takes any option off the table and he shouldn't," said Rice when asked about a military option.

The Bush administration has accused Syria of doing too little to stop foreign fighters from entering neighboring Iraq. Syria, in turn, says the United States has not done enough to secure the border or deliver technical help it has promised.

Rice declined to say whether the president would present any plans to Congress before launching military action against Syria, saying she did not want to circumscribe his powers.

Her strong criticism of Syria comes before the United Nations is set to release a report on Friday on the assassination last February of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

The United States, France and others, say they believe Syria might have played a role in the killing of Hariri and 20 others in a massive truck blast in Beirut on Feb. 14 and are calling for strong action if that is the case.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said Syria was not involved in Hariri's death and he reiterated this in an interview with a German newspaper released on Wednesday, telling Die Zeit that Syria is "100 percent innocent."

"We are 100 percent innocent," Assad said in an interview in Die Zeit weekly newspaper released on Wednesday.

Chief UN investigator Detlev Mehlis will hand over a copy of a report on the February killing of Lebanon's former prime minister to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday and it will form the basis of a debate in the Security Council next week.

Lebanese political sources and diplomats expect it to charge Syrian and Lebanese officials with the murder, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Beirut after mass protests.

Assad told Die Zeit that Hariri's assassination was a crime which Syria did not understand.

"Also what has happened in Lebanon is not in Syria's interests. Quite the opposite. It damages us. Why should we support such acts?" Assad said, adding that Syria was fully cooperating with UN investigators.

Syria has grown increasingly nervous over Lebanese and international charges that is it linked to Hariri's death.

Syrian officials have blamed a Lebanese smear campaign for pushing Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan to commit suicide last week. Kanaan had been questioned by UN investigators in connection with the Hariri investigation.

German magazine Stern said on Tuesday the UN's investigator had named Syrian military intelligence chief Asef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law, as a suspect in the killing.

The United States and France are readying new United Nations Security Council resolutions critical of Syria ahead of a UN report expected to show Syrian complicity in the February 14 assassination, diplomats and U.S. officials say.

On Tuesday, a UN investigator named a brother-in-law of Assad as a suspect in Hariri's killing, a German report said.

The timing of the new resolutions is also intended to highlight recent allegations that Syria is funneling weapons and stirring up trouble in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that negotiations on the resolutions have not been completed.

Annan and Rice discuss SyriaRice discussed Syria and Lebanon during an unannounced breakfast with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday.

"It was a good opportunity for her to raise the issues surrounding the calendar," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said afterward.

Anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon blame Syria for the assassination of Hariri, a charge Syria denies. UN investigator Detlev Mehlis is to release a report on the matter by October 24.

Also in the works is a report on Syrian compliance with Security Council resolution 1559, which demands the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, among other requirements.

Both reports are expected to be taken up by the Security Council next week.

Rice shuttled among Paris, Moscow and London last week for discussions that included the Syria-Lebanon question six months after Syria withdrew forces from its much-smaller Western neighbor.

Syria was the dominant military and political force in Lebanon for nearly three decades, and the Bush administration charges that Syrian intelligence agents remain there.

Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria in protest over Hariri's murder and is at loggerheads with Damascus over its alleged support for Iraqi insurgents, accusing it of failing to do enough to stop fighters from crossing into Iraq.

Mehlis has named four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals as suspects and questioned seven Syrian officials, one of whom - Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan - committed suicide last week.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials want to discuss both reports with other council members, among other countries.

The goal, he said, is to review "what actions, what further steps, if any, might be warranted by what's contained in the reports. But we have to see what's in the reports first."

Separately Tuesday, a Lebanese judge charged a former Syrian intelligence officer with murder, accusing him of lying to UN investigators in the Hariri case.

Hariri supporters also began lobbying foreign embassies representing UN Security Council members to back their call to set up an international tribunal to try those responsible for his murder.

One of the new UN measures would seek an extension of Mehlis' mandate, a U.S. official said, perhaps to continue investigation or to refer his findings to some kind of court or tribunal.

Egypt is also trying to defuse tension between the United States and Syria, the Egyptian foreign minister said Tuesday.

"The last thing Egypt wants is to see another point of tension in the region," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters before leaving for Moscow for talks with the Russian government, which has long been allied with Syria.

Another Egyptian diplomat said Cairo wants to avoid a situation like the U.S.-Iraq standoff, which culminated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The Lebanese government has asked to extend the Mehlis investigation, but a UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Lebanese officials are divided about whether to expand it to either the suicide of Syria's interior minister or the assassination and attempted assassination of journalists.