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U.S. applauds Arab League attendance at Annapolis

(Adds more details, State Department comment)

WASHINGTON, Nov 23 (Reuters) - The United States on Friday welcomed a decision by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to attend a Middle East peace conference in Maryland and said this indicated the U.S.-hosted meeting would be serious.

A meeting in Cairo of key Arab League countries agreed on Friday to attend the Annapolis, Maryland, conference the United States hopes will launch serious Palestinian statehood negotiations for the first time in seven years.

Attendance by Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which has been skeptical of U.S. efforts at Arab-Israeli peacemaking, was seen as crucial to the success and credibility of the meeting.

"We welcome the decision by the Arab League follow-up committee to attend the Annapolis conference at the ministerial level. This is a signal they believe this will be a serious and substantive meeting," said State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth.

The Cairo meeting brought together foreign ministers from the contact group delegated by the Arab League to follow up on a 2002 Arab peace initiative, as well as ministers from some other Arab countries and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Saudi Arabia had been noncommittal over attending the Annapolis conference but Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by telephone on Friday, told reporters he planned to go.

Diplomats had said earlier that Saudi Arabia was considering sending a lower-level official to Annapolis, which would have been a blow to the United States.

BUSH TALKED TO KING

U.S. President George W. Bush called Saudi King Abdullah this week to speak about Annapolis and Britain's former prime minister and Middle East peace envoy, Tony Blair, traveled to Saudi Arabia to urge Riyadh's cooperation.

"The Annapolis conference will show broad international support for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders' efforts and will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace," Duckworth said.

Israeli and Palestinian delegations are expected to arrive in Washington over the weekend ahead of the conference and a senior State Department official said Rice was likely to meet both sides on Sunday before their talks with Bush on Monday.

The United States is looking to hold another international Middle East meeting in three to six months if the Annapolis conference went as planned, said a European diplomat.

The senior State Department official said nothing had been finalized yet and there would be discussions on what followed Annapolis during meetings over the next few days.

Washington is also expected to push its allies and Arab countries attending the Annapolis meeting to dig deep for a Palestinian donors' conference planned for Paris in mid-December.

Syria has been invited to the Annapolis conference as part of the Arab League contact group. Damascus has indicated it will attend only if the Golan Heights, which was seized from it in 1967, is discussed at the talks.

Syria said it had been told Golan would be on the agenda at Annapolis, but a State Department spokesman declined to confirm whether it had told Damascus this.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Rice said while the Annapolis conference was aimed at dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian track, no one would stop Syria from speaking about the Golan Heights.

"If Syria chooses to come and wants to speak to its issues, since its issues are detailed in the road map and are a part of a comprehensive peace, certainly nobody is going to rule it out of order," Rice said.

The senior State Department official said it was unlikely there would be a separate session at Annapolis on Golan but that it would be included in a discussion on a "comprehensive peace" plan. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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