DUBAI - Iran backs a UN-sponsored peace plan for Syria that calls for the withdrawal of troops that are crushing an uprising but does not demand the removal of Tehran ally President Bashar Assad, its foreign minister said on Wednesday.

Iran backed popular uprisings that removed leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen but has steadfastly supported Syria, a rare ally in the Arab world which is largely suspicious of Tehran's ambitions for greater regional influence.

The "Syria issue should be dealt with patiently," the official news agency IRNA quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as saying, warning that "any hasty approach to the Syrian issue and the creation of a power vacuum in that country could have very damaging consequences for the region."

He added that UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan would travel to Iran on Monday or Tuesday next week.

Salehi was talking on the sidelines of a meeting with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan who has called for Assad to step down.

Turkey hosted a conference of Syrian dissidents on Tuesday and will host a "Friends of Syria" meeting of mostly Western and Arab countries on Sunday.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has praised the Syrian leadership's handling of the year-long uprising in which thousands have died, saying Tehran would do everything it could to support its closest Arab ally.

Tehran has tempered its rhetoric since anti-government demonstrations began in March last year, from wholeheartedly supporting Assad to encouraging him to pursue social and political reforms to take account of popular grievances.

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Another longtime ally of Assad, Russia, called on Syria's opposition on Wednesday to accept the peace plan put forward by Annan and urged foreign countries to press the foes of Assad to comply.

Moscow has repeatedly accused the Syrian opposition of blocking efforts to resolve the conflict.

Russia's foreign ministry said it was pleased to learn that Assad had accepted the peace plan, which calls for a ceasefire and withdrawal of government forces from cities and towns ahead of political dialogue.

"It is extremely important in this context for Syrian opposition groups to follow the example of Damascus and clearly declare their agreement with ... the peaceful resolution proposals of the UN-Arab League special envoy," it said in a statement.

"Obviously, much also depends now on external players, particularly those that are capable of influencing the opposition in a positive way," the ministry added.

Syria's splintered opposition leaders reunited under the Syrian National Council (SNC) umbrella group on Tuesday during a meeting in Istanbul.

But they remained skeptical about Annan's plan and said they did not believe Assad was interested in negotiating an end to the conflict.


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