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(photo credit: AP)
President Bashar Assad said in an interview aired Monday by ABC-TV that Syria is ready to talk to the US about Iraq but is not optimistic Washington will seek a dialogue even though it may be the "last chance" to avoid full-scale civil war.
Assad criticized US President George W. Bush, saying his administration does not have the "vision" to bring peace in Iraq. In the interview with "Good Morning America," Assad praised Bush's father, saying the elder Bush had the "will to achieve the peace in the region."
Assad said Syria could play an important role in "supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with the support from the other parties like the Americans and the other neighboring countries..."
"We're not the only player, not the single player. But we are the main player in this issue," Assad told ABC News' Diane Sawyer. "So that's how we can stop the violence."
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended in December that the Bush administration make diplomatic overtures to Syria and Iran to use their influence with Sunni and Shi'ite extremist groups to curb the violence and prevent the conflict from spilling over into the rest of the Middle East.
But the White House rejected the recommendation, instead deciding to send another 21,500 US troops mostly to Baghdad for a major security crackdown - the third in a year. The first units, from the 82nd Airborne Division, have arrived in Baghdad and the rest are due in Iraq by May.
Assad said the Syrians were not optimistic that the Bush administration would pursue diplomatic contacts despite pressure from Congress to do so.
"We are hearing, but we don't expect that much. We don't expect that, after nearly four years of occupation, they haven't learned their lesson, they haven't started the dialogue," Assad said of the Americans.
"I think it's too late for them to move toward that. It doesn't mean we can't turn the tide. But (it may be) too late because Iraqis are heading towards civil war. So maybe (this is) the last chance that we have now to start."
Assad insisted that Syria had good relations with all the Iraqi parties and "that's how we can help as Syria."
In recent weeks, however, Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has become increasingly critical of Syria for allegedly harboring fugitives who finance and support the Sunni insurgency. The government has also accused Syria of turning back Iraqis trying to flee the country and threatening to deport those already living there.
The strident attacks are similar to those leveled by the United States against Iran for allegedly supplying Shi'ite militias with training, weapons and money. The Iraqi government has so far refrained from criticizing Shi'ite-led Iran.
During the interview, Assad also criticized Washington for trying to solve the Iraqi crisis through more troops.
He said the Americans shared the blame for the chaos "because they're responsible for the political situation." That appeared to refer to a US policy early in the occupation favoring the Shi'ite majority over Sunnis, who were dominant during the Saddam Hussein regime.
"They only talk about troops and power, not about the political process," Assad said.
Assad urged the US to "stop looking for scapegoats and whipping boys" and seek help in resolving the Iraq crisis. He insisted that Syria, Iran and other regional powers have a stake in bringing peace to Iraq.
"So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria and to other countries. So saying this, like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest, this is impossible," he said.