Syrian official invited for talks in Washington

Syrian official invited

The upcoming visit by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad is the first in about five years and is part of US efforts to improve strained relations with Damascus. Mekdad, who is currently in New York as part of the Syrian delegation to the UN General Assembly meetings, was to fly to Washington on Monday for talks with US government officials on "a range of issues," the embassy official said. Mekdad's visit was part of "a continuing dialogue" with the Syrian government that began in March, the official said, without giving details. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations. Mekdad's visit comes amid rising tensions between Syria and Iraq after Baghdad accused Damascus of serving as a launching pad for violence in Iraq. Iraq is demanding Syria hand over two members of Saddam Hussein's now-outlawed Baath Party who are blamed by Iraq for the August 19 truck bombings that killed more than 100 people in Baghdad. Syria rejected Iraq's request, saying it had failed to provide evidence implicating the two suspects. In March, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, and National Security Council member Daniel Shapiro, visited Syria. Since that time, various US government officials have visited Syria, including US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell. The US has also sent military delegations twice to Syria to discuss cooperation to help stabilize Iraq. The US has long complained that Syria has allowed insurgents to cross its border into Iraq. Syria has rejected the charges. The US withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian interference in Lebanon following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. America has long wanted Syria to drop support for Hizbullah and Hamas and hopes to peel Syria away from its alliance with Iran - two demands that Syria has rejected. The Syrians want a strong American hand in Middle East peacemaking to regain territory they lost to Israel in the 1967 war. Improvement in bilateral ties also could result in easing economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by Washington over Syria's support for terrorism. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem echoed calls by many Arab nations during the current UN General Assembly session for Israel to comply with the IAEA's demand to submit its nuclear facilities to the agency's safeguard regime and to adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty restricts any nuclear program to nonmilitary purposes. Israel has never said it has nuclear weapons, but is universally believed to possess a sizable arsenal of such warheads. The US and its allies consider Iran the region's greatest proliferation threat, fearing that Teheran is trying to achieve the capacity to make nuclear weapons despite its assertion that it is only building a civilian program to generate power. They also say Syria - which, like Iran is under IAEA investigation - ran a clandestine nuclear program, at least until Israeli warplanes destroyed what they describe as a nearly finished plutonium-producing reactor two years ago. Islamic nations, however, insist that Israel is the true danger, saying they fear its nuclear weapons capacity. Earlier this month, the 150-nation IAEA conference adopted a resolution directly criticizing Israel and its atomic program for the first time in 18 years. Iran hailed the vote as a "glorious moment." The result was a setback for Israel, the United States and other backers of the Jewish state. It also reflected building tensions between Israel and its backers and Islamic nations, backed by members of the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement. The meeting adopted a resolution calling for a Mideast free of nuclear weapons in a near-consensus vote, with only Israel voting against. "Syria stresses the need to commit Israel to comply with the resolution adopted by the IAEA ... regarding Israeli nuclear capabilities," Moallem said.