US senators Kerry, Dodd hold talks with Syrian president on Iraq

DAMASCUS  (AP) — US senators John Kerry and Christopher Dodd met with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday to discuss how Damascus could help bring about stability and security to war-ravaged Iraq.

Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, has sharply criticised President George W. Bush’s rejection of recommendations that Washington engage Syria and its ally Iran on calming Iraq, saying that the United States must deal with its enemies in the region if it wants to bring progress.

The White House has accused Kerry, Dodd and other senators who have met with Assad of sending mixed signals and has insisted that the US will not make concessions to Damascus to win its help in Iraq.

Kerry and Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, declined to speak to reporters after their talks with Assad and a separate meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem.

The US embassy in Damascus said the meeting with Assad, which lasted two and a half hours, covered “a full-range of topics relating to US-Syrian relations and regional issues”. The two US lawmakers later went on a sightseeing tour in the Old Damascus Town.

They arrived in Damascus Tuesday as part of a Middle East tour to probe Syria’s readiness to help bring about stability and security to neighbouring Iraq.

Kerry, who ran against Bush in 2004 elections, arrived here after visits to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Dodd, who is considering a run for US president in 2008, also was in Iraq — his third trip there since the war began.

Their visit came a few days after a similar one by Senator Bill Nelson, who also met with Assad.

The diplomatic push from Congress comes on the heels of a recommendation by a bipartisan panel that the US engage Iran and Syria on the war in Iraq. Bush has expressed reluctance to seek help from Damascus on Iraq until the Syrians curb their support to radical Palestinian groups and to the Lebanese Hizbollah  and reduce their influence in Lebanon.

Syria has influence with Iraqi Sunnis, and some leaders of the Sunni-led insurgency are believed to be living there.

Kerry has criticised the Bush administration for refusing to engage with Syria and Iran, as was recommended by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Syrian-US relations have been strained for several years. Washington accuses Syria of aiding terrorism because of its support for radical Palestinian groups based in Damascus and the Hizbollah. It also accuses Syria of aiding the Iraqi insurgency by allowing armed groups to cross into Iraq.

Syria denies promoting the insurgency, saying it cannot have absolute control over its long and porous desert border with Iraq. It regards the radical Palestinian groups as legitimate opponents of Israeli occupation.

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