A senior US lawmaker told Syria on Saturday it had made "historic mistakes" in its policy toward Iraq, and said stopping support for what the United States describes as  "terrorist" organisations was among the conditions for improving ties.

 

"Syria's position in the United States...dropped dramatically as we saw the transfer of military equipment from and through Syria to Iraq," Tom Lantos of California, the top Democrat on the US House of Representatives' International Relations Committee, told reporters in Damascus.

 

Tom Lantos gives a press
conference in Syria on Saturday

"These were very bad mistakes, historic mistakes, and the time is long overdue to correct the course of Syrian policy," he said after a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

 

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the United States would hold Syria accountable for alleged shipments of military equipment to Iraq.

   

Washington has also accused Syria of developing chemical weapons, and harbouring fleeing members of Saddam Hussein's ousted Iraqi government, charges which Syria strongly denies.

   

Lantos, who described the talks with Assad as constructive, said he wanted to improve US-Syrian ties, but that "there are prerequisites".

   

Lantos demanded Syria to close the offices of "terrorist" groups in Damascus, stop supporting the Lebanese resistance group Hizbullah and to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon.

 

"We find it unacceptable...that there should be headquarters of terrorist organisations in Damascus," he said. "These will need to be closed if Syria is to forge a new relationship with the United States."

   

Several Palestinian resistance groups including Islamic Jihad and Hamas have offices in Damascus.

 

Islamic Jihad and Hamas are spearheading the Palestinian intifada or uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 

Syria also backs Hizbullah, which helped oust Israel from south Lebanon in May 2000 after a 22-year occupation.

 

Lantos claimed Damascus was supporting Hizbllah’s military activities through Syria’s airport.

Lantos claimed Syria supported
Hizbullah through its airport

 

"The ongoing support and supply of Hizbullah's military activities through the airport of Damascus must end," Lantos said. "It is (also) long overdue that Syrian troops be withdrawn from Lebanon... Lebanon is a sovereign country."

   

Syria poured troops into Lebanon early in its 1975-1990 civil war to save Christian militias from defeat by Muslims, leftists and Palestinians, but later turned on them for siding with arch-foe Israel.

   

Syria keeps around 15,000 troops in Lebanon, where it retains broad political and military influence. Lantos described Hizbullah's presence in the southern Lebanese border area as "not acceptable".

 

"The Lebanese army needs to control its border, not a terrorist organisation," he said.