June 3, 2009 / 8:06 PM / 11 years ago

U.S. to send military delegation to Syria

* Middle East envoy also likely in Damascus next week

* Clinton discussed trip by delegation in call

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, June 3 (Reuters) - In a sign of improving relations between Washington and Damascus, the United States is sending a military delegation to Syria in the coming weeks to discuss Iraq, U.S. and Syrian officials said on Wednesday.

Separately, the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell will go to Damascus, possibly next week, to assess whether the time is right to revive talks between Israel and Syria, a U.S. official said.

The official, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak on the issue, said the diplomatic moves followed a telephone call on Sunday between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed Clinton had talked about the possibility of upcoming trips by officials to Syria but said he had nothing to announce. "We want to be engaged with Syria. We want to see what is possible," he said.

Ahmed Salkini, press secretary at Syria’s embassy in Washington, said a military team from U.S. Central Command would go to Damascus soon but details had to be worked out. The Pentagon had no immediate comment on such travel.

The United States has accused Damascus of letting insurgents use Syrian territory to cross over into Iraq. Syria rejects accusations that it is meddling in Iraq.

NEW RELATIONSHIP

Salkini said Syria wanted a new relationship with the United States that focused on a broad range of issues from Iran and Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The overtures, which follow two recent trips by senior U.S. officials to Syria, have occurred despite a decision by President Barack Obama last month to renew sanctions, saying Damascus posed a continuing threat to U.S. interests.

"Those sanctions and the language that was used in the sanctions was unfortunate, inappropriate and does not reflect the truth," said Salkini.

The State Department has indicated it has no plans for now to return a U.S. ambassador to Damascus.

The ambassador was pulled out after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria denies any involvement in the killing but the United States pointed fingers at Damascus.

Part of the U.S. strategy in pursuing better relations with Syria is to weaken its ties to Iran, with which Washington is also seeking dialogue despite decades of isolation.

Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim political and guerrilla group that fought a war against Israel in 2006 and has representatives in the Lebanese government and parliament.

The United States has also been putting pressure on Syria not to interfere in this weekend’s election in neighboring Lebanon, where Hezbollah and its Christian allies are expected to gain a slim advantage.

The Obama administration is eager to get indirect Syria-Israel talks back on track after they were suspended following Israel’s three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip that ended in mid-January.

Turkey had mediated the talks between Israel and Syria and Damascus has said it wants the United States to become involved if they resume. (Editing by David Storey)




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