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Economic reform urged in Syria

President calls on party leaders to fight corruption

DAMASCUS, Syria -- President Bashar Assad urged leaders of the Ba'ath Party to revive the Syrian economy and fight corruption but made no mention of political reform in a speech opening the ruling party's conference yesterday.

''We have faced numerous difficulties because of the weakness of the administrative structure, the lack of qualified people, and because of the chronic accumulation of these problems," Assad said in a rare admission of government failure.

''On top of this, international conditions and successive events in our region have had a negative effect on investment and development opportunities where we had hoped for better," he added, referring to tensions with the United States and Israel, the insurgency in neighboring Iraq, and Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon.

The 10th Ba'ath Party congress convened while Syria is under increasing international scrutiny. The country, already under US sanctions for its alleged role in fueling the Iraqi insurgency, is reeling from its April withdrawal from Lebanon, ending a 29-year-military presence in its tiny neighbor. Syria was forced to pull out its troops after the Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which the Lebanese opposition blamed Damascus. Syria has denied the charge.

The only way to improve living conditions and public services ''is to overcome failure in our performance and address the negative practices which hamper our progress and constrain our reform project," Assad told the 1,221 Ba'ath members.

Without giving examples of graft, Assad said, ''We need more effective and decisive mechanisms to combat [corruption]."

The delegates, elected by the party's 2 million members, stood and cheered as a waving and smiling Assad strode down the steps of the conference hall. Then they observed a minute's silence for Assad's late father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, and those who fell in war with Israel. The last congress of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party unanimously elected Assad secretary general in 2000 after his father's death.

The Syrian leader faces many demands from the international community and at home, where pro-democracy activists have become more vocal in their calls for more freedoms. Analysts say Assad will probably seek a middle way, easing some of the pressure by seeming flexible while maintaining a firm grip on the country.

Opposition figures have said the congress is unlikely to produce more than cosmetic change.

Michel Kilo, a prominent writer and pro-democracy activist, said Assad's focus on the economy and corruption, as opposed to politics, showed that he follows the ''Chinese model" of reform -- liberalizing the economy but not the political system. The speech also showed Assad has ''a cautious yet clear desire for reform," he said.

In his speech, Assad lamented what he called a political atmosphere ''that has put tremendous pressure on Arab citizens and forced them to an unprecedented re-examination of their convictions and ideas."

He cited a ''huge influx of information and ideas made possible by the communications and [information technology] revolution, which has made room for theories and projects, as well as lifestyles which have overwhelmed Arabs and threatened their existence and cultural identity."

The conference is expected to open the way for the participation of other parties -- as long as they are secular -- endorse free-market overhauls to the state-run economy, loosen central control, and perhaps amend the emergency law in force since 1963.

The party also may introduce structural changes by decreasing the members of the National Command -- the party's highest authority -- from 21 to 17, and naming new members. Among the expected newcomers is Maher Assad, Assad's brother and a member of the Republican Guards.

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