Secretary of State Colin Powell on Saturday turned aside the idea of immediate U.S. support for an Arab-backed U.N. resolution on ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction - a proposal obviously aimed at Israel.
Going into his meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Powell said clearing destructive weapons from the region is a long-standing U.S. goal, but now is not the time to address that matter.
Syria introduced such a resolution in the U.N. Security Council on Friday. Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe said it could enhance the chances for peace in light of the new U.S.-backed "road map" to peace that is now before Israelis and Palestinians.
"I think it is a goal that we have to pursue over time, and not ... at the moment of any particular declaration that might be put forward for political purposes, or to highlight the issue," Powell told reporters.
A senior state department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Powell and the Syrian president met for more than two hours Saturday and discussed a number of matters.
The official declined to be specific but said Assad spoke at length about Syria's view and displayed a "general willingness to cooperate on some issues."
Powell was in Syria to help sell the road map, or blueprint, for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that hopefully can bring their 31-month violent conflict to an end. Saturday's talks are a prelude to a second Mideast trip by Powell next week for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian prime minister.
Powell said he would emphasize to Assad that although the road map first addresses the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, it is envisioned as the path to a settlement that also includes the interests of Syria and Lebanon.
"In every one of my previous meetings with the president of Syria, we've discussed the need for parallel tracks that may not move at the same time, the same rate, as the Palestinian-Israeli track, but it must be there," Powell said. "We are interested in a comprehensive solution that will involve creation of a Palestinian state and settling the outstanding issues between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and Syria."
Following his meeting with Assad, Powell flew to Beirut. During the brief stopover, expected to last about two hours, he was to hold talks with Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Powell was then heading home to Washington.
Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, but refuses to confirm or deny the claim. It is not party to global treaties aimed at controlling the spread of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Syria's state-run Al-Thawra newspapers said Saturday that Syria would assert that "the peace and security the hot-headed in the U.S. administration talk about will not be achieved by missiles and planes," but through peaceful channels such as the United Nations.
"Peace and security are achieved by respecting laws and international resolutions and tackling all the causes that led to the new reality," the newspaper said.
Powell said, however, that the United States is not looking to pressure Syria with military action in this new post-Iraq war reality. "I am here to pursue diplomacy and mutual political efforts that both sides can be taking. So the issue of war hostilities is not on the table," Powell said.
But upon arriving in the Syrian capital on Friday, Powell said he had not forgotten that Syria deceived him by failing to deliver on a 2-year-old promise to cut off the flow of oil in a pipeline between Iraq and Syria. And future relations hinge on whether Assad's government takes sincere action in coming weeks and months toward becoming a partner in Middle East peace efforts.
Powell's agenda included a rack of U.S. allegations that Syria supports terrorism, that it sent technology and fighters to Iraq and gave haven to Iraqi officials as Saddam Hussein's rule dissolved. He also planned to call attention to the offices kept in Syria by several Palestinian factions, including the militant Islamic Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which the Bush administration has classified as terrorist organizations.
CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger in Jerusalem reports Israel sees Powell's plan to confront Syria about terrorist support as a big step forward. Israel has long complained that terrorist groups often receive orders for suicide bombings from their leaders based in Damascus.
"Many Israelis were surprised to discover Syria being accepted as a legitimate member of the U.N. Security Council, knowing that Syria is the home for many headquarters of terror organizations," said Israeli analyst Alon Ben David.
Powell said he would tell Assad that the talks the Bush administration hopes to launch between Israel and the Palestinians could blossom into wider negotiations involving Syria. One issue of importance to Syria is the fate of the strategically important Golan Heights.
Powell said with Assad, he intends to "speak clearly, make sure he understands our position" on the Golan Heights, and come away himself with a thorough understanding of Syria's position so he can report back to President Bush.