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Syria sanctions bill moves forward

Cairo University students in Egypt burn a makeshift Israeli flag during a protest of U.S. Middle East policy and Israel's recent attack on an alleged terrorist training camp in Syria.
Cairo University students in Egypt burn a makeshift Israeli flag during a protest of U.S. Middle East policy and Israel's recent attack on an alleged terrorist training camp in Syria.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House International Relations Committee recommended approval Wednesday of a bill that would authorize President Bush to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria.

The vote was 33-2 for the Syria Accountability Act, which now goes to the House floor. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to look at the bill later this month, according to The Washington Post.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Secretary of State Colin Powell told Syrian President Bashar Assad during a visit to Damascus in May that unless Syria took steps against terrorist groups there would be moves in Congress to restrict U.S.-Syria relations.

"That's what we're seeing unfold because Syria hasn't taken any significant action against terrorist groups," Boucher said.

The vote followed an indication from the White House that Bush would sign the legislation, administration and congressional sources said.

For months, the White House had asked Republican leaders not to move forward to avoid complicating administration efforts to push the "road map" for Middle East peace.

But because of growing frustration with Syria's alleged support for terrorism in Israel and its failure to stop the flow of militants into Iraq, administration officials informed Republican leaders late last week they would no longer oppose the legislation, the sources said.

The change came before Israel's military strike Sunday against an alleged terrorist training camp in Syria.

The Middle East peace plan has been stalled by continued terrorist attacks, the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmood Abbas, and accusations Israel is not sufficiently dismantling housing projects built on Palestinian territory against Palestinian objections.

The bill would threaten economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria if it does not abandon support for the militant group Hezbollah and for Hamas and other terrorist groups.

It also would threaten sanctions if Syria does not end its occupation of Lebanon and stop producing and acquiring chemical and biological weapons.

The bill would direct the president to impose two of six possible sanctions against Syria. The options are:

• Ban exports to Syria of military and dual-use technology, such as pharmaceuticals and related items.

• Prohibit U.S. businesses -- currently mostly oil companies -- from operating in Syria.

• Restrict Syrian diplomats in the United States.

• Block Syrian airline flights to the United States and its territories.

• Reduce or remove diplomatic contacts with Syria.

• Freeze Syrian assets in the United States.

The legislation would allow the president to waive any or all of the sanctions, and administration officials conceded the intent is to send a symbolic message to Syria about U.S. displeasure with its actions.

House leadership aides said the bill is likely to pass within the next two weeks or so.

The bill has more than 275 co-sponsors from both parties in the House, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Delay had pressed the Bush administration to support the bill. He formally signed on Friday after the administration did.

The main House original co-sponsors are Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, and Rep. Elliott Engel, D-New York.

In the Senate, the bill has 76 co-sponsors, led by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California.

CNN correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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