WASHINGTON, Sept 29 The top Syrian official to visit the United States in five years held talks on Monday with a senior U.S. diplomat to boost tentative links between the two estranged countries, a State Department official said.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad met U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew and was due to meet a range of other U.S. government officials during his trip, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
"We have a wide range of common interests between Syria and the United States in the region," Crowley told a news briefing, adding that the talks would also focus on "our bilateral relationship and how to advance it going forward."
Diplomats in Damascus said al-Mekdad's visit was aimed at discussing U.S sanctions on Syria as well as its relations with Iraq, which has accused Syria of harboring followers of Saddam Hussein suspected of being behind deadly attacks in Iraq.
The United States sent a security delegation twice to Damascus this year to discuss cooperation on Iraq and steps that Syria could take to prevent infiltration of fighters and supplies through its borders into Iraq.
But Iraq withdrew its ambassador from Syria after two bomb attacks in Baghdad on Aug. 19 killed 95 people.
The United States also wants Syria's help in forging a deal between Israel and the Palestinians through its influence on the Palestinian group Hamas, as well as its support for the formation of a new government in Lebanon.
The State Department said in June that a U.S. ambassador would be restored to Damascus without giving a date.
Diplomats say al-Mekdad's visit was part of a continued outreach to Damascus which President Barack Obama launched soon after he took office in January.
"We'll continue our dialogue. We'd like to use these encounters, whether they're in Damascus or here in Washington or in New York ...to increase our understanding on both sides," Crowley said.
(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editingby Philip Barbara )