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Syria Says It Wants Dialogue with U.S.

Syria Says It Wants Dialogue with U.S.

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa welcomed President Bush's positive remarks about Syria, saying Monday that his country wants dialogue and not heated exchanges with the United States.

Al-Sharaa, speaking in advance of a visit here by Secretary of State Colin Powell, also said Syria has sealed its border with Iraq and that anyone crossing into the country would require a visa.

Al-Sharaa's remarks came a day after Bush applauded signs that Syria is beginning to heed American demands for cooperation against Saddam Hussein's defunct regime.

The exchanges signaled a significant cooling of recent tensions between the two countries arising from U.S. claims that members of Saddam's deposed government had crossed the border to flee the U.S.-led war. The accusations, denied by Damascus, have led to speculation that Syria could become Bush's next military target.

The lowering of the rhetoric was also a sign that Syria and the United States would use diplomacy to deal with their differences.

Al-Sharaa spoke at a news conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio following her two-hour meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Palacio praised Syria as a "very responsible international actor, and constructive and pragmatic." Palacio, whose country maintains good relations with Damascus and Washington, stressed several times that Syria is not under military threat from the United States.

Syria's official news agency, SANA, said Palacio's talks with Assad dealt with both the U.S.-led war on Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

SANA quoted Assad as telling Palacio that Syria "supports the solutions that ensure the interest of Arabs in all their countries, especially the resolutions of international legitimacy."

Both Assad and Palacio stressed the need for the United Nations to have "an active and positive role in international peace and security issues," according to SANA.

"Syria will accept anything the Palestinians accept," Assad was quoted as telling Palacio on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Al-Sharaa said the Syrians "welcome the recent statement by President Bush."

He said Syria has "never wanted confrontational dialogue with the United States."

"If there was a change recently, a change of heart, a change in ... words and escalation ... it was not in Damascus," said al-Sharaa. "There was a change in Washington. There's a new phase in the history of the American people."

"We started the 21st century with hope it would be a century of peace," al-Sharaa added. "But then we were surprised with wars, and the wars were not launched from Damascus."

Al-Sharaa insisted his country was a stabilizing factor in the region, and "if somebody in Washington or elsewhere thought the reverse he is mistaken."

"And if anyone will correct his or her position, this would be welcome because we are against continuing this politics of escalation in using tough words or harsh words," added al-Sharaa.

Al-Sharaa welcomed Powell's coming trip, saying it was part of a "continuing dialogue between Syria and the United States for creating a better environment, especially after this war." No date has been announced for Powell's visit.

Asked to comment on reports that the United States plans to maintain a military base in Iraq close to the Syrian border, al-Sharaa said: "We can discuss anything. Between Syria and the United States there is a long agenda."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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