DAMASCUS, Syria - U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's thinly veiled threat to hold Syria responsible for the alleged shipment of military equipment to Iraq set off a firestorm in the Middle East yesterday, deepening the conviction among many that Washington is prepared to substitute force for diplomacy in Arab countries.
In newspaper headlines, on the street and among the Arab elite, the response was one of bitter amazement and angry resignation at the threat.
"Only a madman would think of widening the circle of war," said Information Minister Adnan Umran, a former Syrian ambassador to Britain.
In a news conference Friday, Rumsfeld accused Syria of sending night-vision goggles to Iraq, along with other items, saying: "These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."
The Syrian government quickly denied Rumsfeld's allegation.
Officials emphasized that the country abides by U.N. resolutions that ban sending military aid of any kind to Iraq.
By yesterday, Syrian leaders appeared eager to play down the event, framing it primarily as confirmation that Washington has abandoned efforts to use diplomacy to engage the Arab world.
Rumsfeld's language hit a particular nerve with the Syrian public, which has rallied enthusiastically behind President Bashar Assad's outspoken opposition to the war.
Assad is the only Arab leader other than Saddam Hussein to express the hope in public that the U.S. and British forces will be defeated.
"The United States and Britain will not be able to control all of Iraq," Assad said in a newspaper interview. "There will be much tougher resistance. But if the American-British designs succeed, and we hope they will not and we doubt that they will succeed, there will be Arab popular resistance anyway, and this has already begun."
Alissa J. Rubin is a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.