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Kerry: Syria leader wants to assist in Iraq

Senator John F. Kerry said Wednesday that President Bashar Assad of Syria expressed a willingness to work with the United States to bring stability to Iraq, and said Assad personally offered assistance that Kerry plans to convey to the Bush administration.

Kerry -- who visited Syria along with Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, despite the administration's opposition to the trip -- said the meeting with Assad reinforced the need to follow the Iraq Study Group's recommendation that the US government directly engage Syria and Iran to find a way forward in Iraq.

"He offered some very direct and concrete ways in which they could be helpful in Iraq," Kerry said in an interview conducted by telephone from Damascus. "I came away with a distinct feeling that there are opportunities here. There are fronts in which we can work together if people are inclined to."

Kerry said the Assad government is interested in approaching the Iraq war from a regional perspective, where other Middle East issues -- including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- are part of the equation. The Massachusetts Democrat said he would not publicly discuss the substance of his talks with Assad until he has fully briefed State Department officials about his visit.

But Kerry reiterated his position that President Bush is wrong to rule out direct talks with Syria and Iran. He added that he is interested in visiting Iran as well at an "appropriate time" that's well-removed from the country's recent conference for Holocaust deniers, which Kerry labeled "absurd and insulting."

"I think you've got to talk with people," Kerry said. "You can disagree with them and disagree with them and disagree with them, and you may not get anywhere, but you've got to talk to people."

Wednesday's two-hour meeting involving Kerry, Dodd, and Assad is part of a growing diplomatic effort by senators to improve US relations with Syria. Last week, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, became the first senator in nearly two years to meet with Assad, and Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, is also due to visit Syria this week.

The Bush administration cut off high-level diplomatic contact with Syria in late 2004, saying that talks with the government had failed to convince Syria to stop the flow of insurgents into Iraq or to stop support for the anti-Israeli militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

State Department officials sought to dissuade Kerry, Dodd, and Nelson from going to Syria, though they helped set up logistics of the visits when the lawmakers insisted on making their trips. Last week, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow blasted the visits as "not appropriate," saying that such meetings hand the Syrian government "a PR victory" by allowing officials to showcase what they portray as improved relations with the West.

At a White House press conference Wednesday, Bush defended his administration's decision to rule out talks with Iran and Syria until the leaders of those countries change their behavior.

"We have talked to them about what is necessary for them to have a better relationship with the United States," Bush said. "And they're not unreasonable requests."

Still, Bush cited the fact that US lawmakers are visiting Syria as a signal to the Syrian government that they can work to repair relations with the United States. The Bush administration withdrew its ambassador to Syria in February 2005, after Syria was implicated in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon, although lower-level staff remain in Damascus.

"We've had visits with the Syrians in the past. Congressmen and senators visit Syria," Bush said at the press conference. "What I would suggest, that if they're interested in better relations with the United States, that they take some concrete, positive steps that promote peace, as opposed to instability."

Nelson told reporters after his meeting with Assad that the Syrian president "clearly indicated the willingness to cooperate" with US and Iraqi forces to secure his country's border with Iraq.

Kerry said his meeting gave him and Dodd a chance to express the "unanimity of Democrats" about the need for an independent Lebanon, free of Syrian interference. In a joint statement, the senators said they laid out a series of steps the Assad government must take to improve its standing in the eyes of the United States.

"While we believe in resuming dialogue, our message is no different: Syria can and should play a more constructive role in the region," the senators said. "We conveyed our strong belief that only concrete and verifiable actions by the Syrian government would help convince Americans that Syria is willing to change course."

But the State Department continued to emphasize that it did not endorse the senators' trip to Syria. Officials' assistance in setting up the trip reflects only the "courtesy that you might expect we would [extend] to senior members of the Senate," said Sean McCormack, a department spokesman.

"Whether they're foreign visitors or US senators or US congressmen, it is their decision to take," McCormack said. "It doesn't mean that we support the fact that they are there or having these discussions."

Syria's official news agency cast Wednesday's meeting as a chance for the Syrian government to work toward an end to violence in Iraq -- and to press Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that has been occupied by Israel since 1967.

"The president and the two senators discussed the deteriorating situation in Palestine and the need to preserve Palestinian national unity," the SANA agency reported. "The Baker-Hamilton [Iraq Study Group] report was discussed and President Assad affirmed the need to stop violence in Iraq, and Syria's readiness to achieve Middle East peace under honest international auspices."

Both Kerry and Dodd are considering running for president in 2008.

Kerry has said he would announce his decision shortly after the turn of the year.

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