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Saudi, Syrian leaders to discuss Iran, Mideast peace

RIYADH (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started talks with Saudi King Abdullah on Wednesday that could see a renewed push for reconciliation between Iran-backed Hamas and the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority.

Riyadh has been trying to convince Syria to loosen its alliance with Iran and adopt a more Arab-focused foreign policy, with Saudi officials hinting at financial aid for Syria and a resumption of investment there in return.

Iran’s growing influence in the Arab region since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its links to Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hamas and various groups in Iraq, have alarmed U.S.-allied powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Weaning Syria away from Tehran is seen by some as a key to getting Hamas to soften its position in reconciliation talks with the rival Fatah party, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Saudi state news agency SPA said Syrian President Assad had arrived in Riyadh and would stay in Saudi Arabia for “several days.”

At a news conference with his Chinese counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Assad and King Abdullah would discuss “Arab reconciliation,” but declined to say if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would join the talks.


Reaching a positive outcome could hinge on the participation of Mubarak whose country’s efforts at brokering a deal between the main two Palestinian factions have been hurt by what it perceives as an unconstructive approach from Syria.

“The aim is to reconcile the Palestinians with the help of the Syrians. But it is a triangle: Egyptians should also be here which means we need to reconcile them with the Syrians. If Mubarak joins the talks then we will achieve a breakthrough,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi senior diplomat who is editor of al-Watan newspaper.

The Islamist Hamas defeated Fatah in a 2006 parliamentary election. A power-sharing agreement, brokered by Riyadh in 2007, broke down and Hamas seized control of Gaza after routing Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Abbas.

The lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks -- which depends in part on a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation -- is strengthening the hand of hardliners backed by Iran, Saudi and Egyptian officials fear.

Officials gave few details about the agenda of the Riyadh talks. The visit followed intense diplomatic efforts leading to a rare visit earlier this month to Riyadh by Hamas’ political leader Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Syria.

Diplomats say Iran’s nuclear energy program will also feature in the talks. Washington is threatening more United Nations sanctions against a program it fears could allow Tehran to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies any such intention.

Editing by Andrew Hammond and Noah Barkin