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By Lesley Wroughton and Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON/WARSAW, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday accused Syria of dragging its feet on the handover of chemical weapons, a delay that puts at risk what President Barack Obama touted only this week as a U.S. diplomatic achievement in Syria's civil war.
Saying that just 4 percent of Syria's deadliest chemical weapons materials had been removed, the Obama administration said the Syrian government's requests for additional equipment were "without merit" and demanded action to get back on schedule to comply with an international disarmament deal.
"The United States is deeply concerned about the failure of the government of Syria to transport to (the port of) Latakia all of the chemical agent and precursors as mandated," the United States told the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the world's chemicals weapons watchdog in The Hague.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's decision in September to give up chemical arms helped him avoid threatened U.S. air strikes in retaliation for a poison gas attack near Damascus in August that killed hundreds of people, many of them women and children.
But the internationally backed operation to dispose of Syria's chemical arsenal is now six to eight weeks behind schedule and it will miss next week's deadline for sending all toxic agents abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.
Delays pose a difficult challenge for Obama, who has faced criticism at home and abroad for failing to do more to quell Syria's nearly 3-year-old civil war.
Obama cited the chemical weapons deal in his annual state of the Union address on Tuesday, saying "American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria's chemical weapons are being eliminated."
Underscoring the Obama's administration's anxiety, U.S. Defense Secretary said he discussed the issue in a call on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shogun, and asked him to "do what he could to influence the Syrian government to comply with the agreement that has been made" for destroying the chemical weapons.
"The United States is concerned that the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons precursor materials on time with the schedule that was agreed to," Hagel told reporters during a visit to Poland.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent Republican critic of Obama's Syria policy, said: "Having the Russian disarm Assad is sort of like Mussolini disarming Hitler; I'm not so sure it's going to work."
Echoing Hagel's comments, the White House said Syrian needs to intensify its efforts to transport chemical weapons to the port of Latakia, from where the material is being shipped out.
"Syria has said that its delay in transporting these chemicals has been caused by 'security concerns' and insisted on additional equipment - armored jackets for shipping containers, electronic countermeasures, and detectors for improvised explosive devices," U.S. representative to the OPCW Robert Mikulak said in the statement to the OPCW's executive council.
"These demands are without merit, and display a 'bargaining mentality' rather than a security mentality," he added.
But the administration stopped short of threatening action if Syria failed to comply.
After threatening and then backing away from military action last year, there seems to be little support in Congress or among the war-weary American public for a new U.S. military entanglement in the Middle East.
Failure to eliminate its chemical weapons could expose Syria to sanctions, although these would have to be supported in the U.N. Security Council by Russia and China, which have so far refused to back such measures against Assad.
"The question will be whether the Russians will tolerate Assad making them look bad," said Dennis Ross, Obama's former Middle East adviser. "I suspect he is dragging his feet to see what he can get away with." (Additional reporting by Jeff Mason aboard Air Force One and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown)
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