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Syria's Assad congratulates Obama, urges dialogue

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad congratulated president-elect Barack Obama on Friday and urged him to pursue dialogue in the Middle East, two weeks after U.S. planes raided Syria.

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The state news agency said Assad sent a congratulatory telegram to Obama “expressing hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East.”

Relations between Washington and Damascus plummeted after U.S. helicopters raided a target in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq on Oct 26.

The raid killed Abu Ghadiya, a top smuggler of foreign fighters to al Qaeda in Iraq, a U.S. official said.

The Damascus government said the attack killed eight Syrian civilians and responded by shutting down an American school and a cultural center in Damascus.

Relations between Washington and Damascus already were strained by U.S. accusations that Syria was turning a blind eye to Islamist fighters infiltrating into Iraq.

The outgoing administration of President George W. Bush also imposed sanctions on the Syria in 2004 for its support of Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite movement.

Syrian officials say privately that under Obama they expect change in what they see as Washington’s hardline policy toward Syria and support for peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Turkish-mediated indirect talks stalled after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to resign.

Officials in the Bush administration have said the U.S. priority was a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, not the so called Israeli-Syrian track.

Writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Editing by Michael Roddy