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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States' somewhat grudging offer to invite diplomatic adversary Syria to its Middle East peace conference is largely to provide political cover for other Arab states to take part, U.S. officials said.
The Bush administration's most high-profile attempt to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace is expected to take place in November and the United States on Sunday signaled its willingness to invite Syria.
However, U.S. officials suggested they did so with little enthusiasm because of their disagreements with Damascus over Iraq, Lebanon and its support for Hamas, the militant group and political party that rules the Gaza Strip.
The United States has long criticized Syrian influence in Lebanon, which U.S. officials believe has continued despite the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from its southern neighbor.
The United States also accuses Syria of fomenting violence in neighboring Iraq by allowing arms and fighters to cross its border and criticizes Damascus for supporting Hamas, the Palestinian militant group and political party that seized control of the Gaza Strip and has rejected the conference.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition that he not be named, said Washington had signaled its willingness to invite Syria chiefly out of a desire to get other Arab states to come. To exclude Syria would provide "an easy excuse" for other Arab states to stay away, he said.
"Others have to have them there or they would feel at risk that they didn't have the appropriate cover for their own participation," he added, saying the United States would not exclude Syria but "we don't cherish their participation."
"You balance the discomfort of their presence, because of these problems that we have with them, against the value of the presence of others," he said.
The United States disclosed its plan to include Syria indirectly, saying it would invite the members of an Arab League panel following up the group's 2002 peace initiative.
In addition to the Palestinian Authority, the group includes Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Only the last two have full relations with Israel, while Syria and Lebanon are deeply estranged from the Jewish state.
The Arab League peace initiative calls on Israel to withdraw from all Arab land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war; to reach an "agreed, just" solution for Palestinian refugees; and to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with east Jerusalem as its capital.
In return, Arab states would consider the conflict over and enter a peace treaty with Israel; achieve comprehensive peace for all the states of the region; and establish normal relations with Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Arab initiative would be a cornerstone of the conference, which the United States hopes will provide broader Arab backing for an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
"So we faced a choice: Did you try and exclude a member of this committee, causing untold difficulty for others in trying to figure out whether or not they could then come ... or did you just say the entire committee is invited?" Rice told Fox News in an interview on Monday. "We decided on the latter, not one of the easier decisions we've ever had to make."
Rice on Sunday stressed that countries that attend should renounce violence and support Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The official who asked not to be named said he did not expect Syria to change policy on Lebanon, Iraq or Hamas.
"If they did something different that would be great but I think we are assuming that they will continue to misbehave," he said.
He also said the United States reserved the right not to formally invite Syria but did not expect that to happen.
Israeli and Palestinian officials said asking Syria to the conference could test its willingness to break with Palestinian militants including Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June and has rejected the U.S.-sponsored conference.
"That could occur. I'm not sanguine it will," the official said.