Assad tries to mend Arab fences

Embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad moved Monday to ease tensions with Arab leaders whom he had mocked as incompetent in confronting Israel - causing the latest rift among Arab states. Last week, Assad knocked Arab leaders as "half men," underlining the sharp division among Arab nations as they try to forge a unified front to resolve the Lebanon crisis, triggered by Hizbullah's July 12 abduction of two IDF soldiers. Assad's conciliatory move came amid reports that Qatar has stepped in to mediate between Syria and Egypt to end the dispute that pitted Damascus against some of the Arab heavyweights. On Monday, Assad sent a letter of condolence to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for the death of scores of Egyptians in a train collision earlier in the day. Meanwhile, two of his ministers gave interviews to explain that Assad did not mean to insult Mubarak or other Arab leaders. In his letter, read on Egyptian state TV, Assad did not mention his earlier jibe. But Syrian Information Minister Mouhsen Bilal told the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper that Assad's comments were not directed at Mubarak. "Mr. President did not mean Egypt or its leadership, it was blame meant for other Arabs," he said. In an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem also said Assad was not targeting Arab leaders when he said those who did not support Hizbullah were "half men." "President Assad meant by that phrase individuals inside Syria and maybe outside it who cast doubt on the ability of the resistance [Hizbullah] to achieve victory," Moallem was quoted as saying. Assad said in a televised speech Tuesday that the war had "unveiled half men" - a reference to the opposition of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to Hizbullah's abduction of two soldiers that triggered the war. Arab governments have not commented on Assad's jibes in Tuesday's speech. Instead, the task has been left to newspapers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, some of which are state-guided. Several launched personal and direct attacks on Assad - the likes of which the region has not seen directed against an Arab leader for years. On Monday, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, flew to Damascus for talks with Mubarak. Egyptian state-run media said Thani spoke with Mubarak about "maintaining Arab solidarity and closing Arab ranks." But Arab diplomats said he was trying to mediate between Assad and Mubarak. Kuwait's Al-Siyassah daily reported Monday that Assad had asked to meet with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, but his request was turned down. In a front-page story, the paper said Assad asked for the meeting to "explain his latest position." Abdullah did not want to see Assad - "not now, or in the future," because his position was "clear and did not need any explanation," the paper said, quoting unidentified officials.