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U.S. hits Syria with sanctions
The U.S. has urged President Bashar al-Assad to cooperate with the Syrian Accountability Act.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States has placed tough sanctions on Syria, charging Damascus with supporting terrorist groups.

Labeling Syria "an unusual and extraordinary threat" President George W. Bush has prohibited the export of U.S. products other than food and medicine to Damascus. It also prohibits flights between the two countries.

The sanctions also sever banking relations with the Commercial Bank of Syria, freeze assets of Syrians and Syrian entities suspected of involvement terrorism or WMD development, Reuters reported.

"The Syrian government must understand that its conduct alone will determine the duration of the sanctions," Bush said in a statement that promised a positive U.S. response to constructive actions by Damascus.

Syria has dismissed the move, saying it would damage U.S. interests in the region.

Washington maintains that Syria sponsors terrorism, is developing unconventional weapons, and has failed to stop anti-American fighters from crossing into Iraq.

The United States also accuses Syria of occupying Lebanon.

The sanctions fall under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, passed by Congress in November and signed by Bush in December to punish the Damascus government.

Syria was placed on a list of state sponsors of terrorism when the list was created in 1979.

Trade between Syria and the U.S. was already limited by earlier sanctions.

The United States imposed additional administrative sanctions against Syria in 1986, citing evidence of direct Syrian involvement in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane.

Not among the sanctions was an expected curb on future investments by U.S. energy companies, who constitute the only major American corporate presence in Syria, Reuters reported.

A specific ban on U.S. businesses investing or operating in Syria had been among a menu of sanctions covered by the 2003 act.

Some supporters of the sanctions, however, said some measures were little more than symbolic, given Washington's arms-length economic and political relationship with Damascus.

"Some of these may not have a strong economic impact, but it certainly has a diplomatic and symbolic impact," Reuters reported Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida as saying.

Ros-Lehtinen had been among lawmakers critical of the Bush administration for not moving faster to implement penalties under the Syria accountability act.

-- CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report

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