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Assad lashes out at Syria critics

Al-Assad, at Damascus University, criticized a U.N. report into Hariri's death.



DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) -- Syria's president has lashed out against his country's critics, particularly the United States and Israel, but said the nation will cooperate -- to a point -- with a United Nations investigation into the assassination of a Lebanese politician.

"There is an international agenda that is going on," Bashar al-Assad said in a nationally televised speech Thursday at Damascus University. "We'll work with them in their game -- and what's happening now is a game.

"Whatever we do and whatever extent we cooperate, a month from now they will say Syria did not cooperate," he said. "Regardless, we will do our part."

But cooperation has its limits, he said. "We will stop at the limit that would bring harm to Syria."

Al-Assad maintained Syria's innocence in the February 14 death of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who had become a critic of Syria's military occupation of Lebanon. His death in a car bombing touched off protests that eventually led to Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.

Al-Assad criticized a U.N. report from investigator Detlev Mehlis that said the probe had found evidence of Syrian involvement in Hariri's death.

"They brought in that fake witness," he said. "When do we look for a fake witness? That's when we don't have evidence."

He apparently was referring to a witness who named five Syrian officials in the report, including Assad's brother. Those names were later deleted before the report was publicly released. One electronic version of the report, however, showed the deleted names in a margin.

Syria has since formed its own investigative team and launched a probe into the death. Earlier this week, however, Syrian officials invited Mehlis to come to Syria. Assad said Thursday that Mehlis had rejected the conditions Syria set for the visit.

Assad denied accusations that Syria has not cooperated with the Mehlis investigation. "Our decision from the beginning was to fully cooperate with the committee because we were confident of being innocent."

But, he said, "what is happening today has nothing to do with the assassination of Hariri." He questioned why a U.N. probe was not launched into the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a year ago.

Syria is a target for criticism, he said, because of its Arab identity and its unwavering stance on issues such as the war in Iraq and the Middle East.

"Our problem started with some of the superpowers.... The problem of some with Syria and Syria's problem with them is Syria's belonging to the Arab Nation. They want us without memory so they can draw our own future for us," he said.

Although al-Assad did not mention the United States or President George W. Bush specifically, he explained that he would "use the third person -- 'they' and 'he' -- and you know who I mean."

"They want this country to be chaotic so they can take advantage of that," he said. "They should know we are a country that does not forego its independence."

In Iraq, he said, "what is happening is of concern to every Arab.... When chaos increases, the dangers increase against Iraq, and also this chaos is causing the bloodshed of innocent civilians."

Indirectly, he said, the situation also poses a danger to Syria. "The blood of every Iraqi people is like the blood of every Syrian. We have to work together as we've done in the past."

However, the United States has prevented Iraqi officials from doing so, he alleged.

"We sent invitations to (Iraqi President Jalal) Talabani and (Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-) Jaafari immediately after they assumed their positions," al-Assad said.

A Syrian delegation was sent to Iraq, but was not allowed to meet with Iraqi leaders. "That's what we heard from Mr. Jaafari: Occupying forces sabotaged the visit. I give this information so that people understand that we did do our part vis-a-vis our relationship with Iraq," he said.

"We do not blame them, because they are not the final decision makers in this," he said. "I repeat my invitation to Talabani and Jaafari to come to Syria."

And he rejected U.S. criticism saying Syria has failed to control its borders with Iraq, allowing insurgents and weapons to enter the country. Calling it a "big lie," al-Assad nevertheless acknowledged that "there's no country that can control all its borders."

When former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited in 2003, al-Assad said he asked for technical help along the border to better control it, but "nothing, of course, came."

Later, he said, an American delegation addressed the same issue with him. "The U.S. cannot control its borders with Mexico. At the same time, (they) asked us to control our borders. How come?"

"We cannot cooperate only with ourselves," he said. "We are only on one side of the border. We reiterate that we are very open to working with Iraqis, whether to control the borders or control what's beyond the borders."

But, he said, Syria's borders are not neglected. "The problem is ... the occupation forces in general. It's unreasonable to say they are wrong, so they cast the blame on others."

Assad also made clear Syria's continuing displeasure with Israel's so-called occupation of the Golan Heights area, which Syria maintains belongs to it, and saluted its residents under "the repressive regime of Israel."

"Bashar (al-) Assad will not be the one who bows his head or the head of the nation and the people," he said to thunderous applause. "We only bow our head to God Almighty."

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