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Clinton Seeks Cutoff of Hamas' Mideast Funding : Terrorism: President asks Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to put a stop to all support for the group. He's made little progress.


DAMASCUS, Syria — President Clinton is privately asking the rulers of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to choke off support for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, but he has made little headway, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Clinton has promised to launch an all-points offensive against Hamas, which claimed responsibility for last week's bombing of a Tel Aviv bus that killed 23 people as part of its crusade against Arab-Israeli peace agreements.

Experts on terrorism say Hamas uses Syria as a base of operations and raises money from private citizens in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both close U.S. allies. All three countries are on Clinton's tour of the Middle East this week.

When the President raised the issue of terrorism with Syrian President Hafez Assad on Thursday, he got a frosty response. Clinton said he told Assad that support for Hamas or other terrorists is "inconsistent" with the pursuit of peace, and he quoted Assad as expressing "deep regret" over the killings in Tel Aviv by saying: "We have to end the killing of innocents."

But Assad did not repeat that sentiment publicly at the two presidents' news conference here, and refused to be drawn into a discussion of Syria's role as a haven for leaders of Hamas and other terrorist groups--the chief reason his country is kept on the official U.S. list of terrorist nations.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher acknowledged that the issue remains a sticking point between the United States and Syria. "The allegation is not that the Syrian government itself engages in terrorism, but they do provide some comfort (to terrorists) by providing a place for them to be," he said. "We're going to continue to press that."

In Saudi Arabia, where Clinton is scheduled to make a brief stop today, the royal family has repeatedly assured the United States that it is not sending any official money to Hamas. But government officials have warned that they don't believe they can do much to stop private fund raising for the militants.

Much of the money raised among wealthy Hamas sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states is ostensibly for charitable purposes such as the schools and medical clinics that Hamas runs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But U.S. officials charge that some of the money ends up supporting terrorist activities.

"We understand that there are limits on any government's ability to stop private fund raising. We have the same problem here in the United States," one official said. "But there are some things the Saudis can do."

He said Saudi citizens have funded paramilitary training camps for Islamic militants, reportedly including some Hamas members, in Yemen, Sudan and Afghanistan.

Christopher is expected to bring the issue up in a meeting today with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal. Officials said it is not clear whether Clinton will mention the problem when he sees King Fahd.

Even if Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait could stop all support for Hamas from their territory, the terrorist group would still survive, U.S. officials acknowledge.

For one thing, Hamas raises money from private sympathizers in several other countries--including the United States, which Israeli officials charge is the group's main base of operation outside the Middle East.

Hamas also relies on donations from grass-roots adherents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where most of its members live. And the group reportedly has received millions of dollars in subsidies from the radical Islamic government of Iran.

The Clinton Administration has vowed to redouble efforts by the FBI to determine whether Hamas has engaged in any illegal fund raising or other actions in the United States, and will encourage the Saudis to do likewise, officials said.

The Administration has created a new "inter-agency group" to look at the problem, and it met in Washington this week for the first time, officials said.

The group plans to determine whether new laws are needed to make it easier to prosecute supporters of overseas terrorists, and to see whether laws now on the books can be enforced more diligently.

Senior officials noted that the crime bill passed by Congress in August includes a section that makes it a crime to "knowingly" raise funds for terrorist operations. The previous law did not have such a requirement, and was difficult to enforce because it was open to challenge on constitutional grounds, they said.

Earlier this week, U.S. ambassadors around the Middle East asked all Arab governments to issue public condemnations of Hamas.

McManus reported from Washington and Lauter from Damascus.

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