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U.S. security team to visit Syria, focus on Iraq

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A U.S. security delegation will visit Syria on Wednesday in a sign of growing cooperation between the two countries since U.S. President Barack Obama started talking with the Damascus government, diplomats said.

The delegation will mainly discuss Syrian moves to curb infiltration into neighboring Iraq and insurgent networks Washington says are operating from Syria, the diplomats in the Syrian capital said.

Security cooperation on Iraq has been a main goal of the U.S. rapprochement with Syria, which has led to U.S. support for resuming peace talks between Syria and Israel and an announcement that Washington would send back an ambassador to Damascus after a four-year break.

“The Americans have presented the Syrians with names of main facilitators of insurgents they want captured,” one of the diplomats told Reuters.

A U.S. State Department official confirmed the visit, the second since June, and said the delegation would be headed by a general from the U.S. Central Command.

Also included in the delegation are an official from the office of the Secretary of Defense and State Department official Frederick Hoff, who is responsible for bridging differences on territorial issues between Israel and Syria that contributed to the breakdown of previous peace talks.

The State Department official said the visit, which comes as a resurgence of violence hits Iraq, “will focus on continuing our dialogue in more detail concerning opportunities for cooperation on regional security matters.”


Syria, the diplomats said, already this year expelled Mohammad Younis, a main figure in the outlawed Iraqi Baath Party, who is wanted by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government but has little military operational importance on the ground.

The diplomats said President Bashar al-Assad agreed to the U.S. security team’s visit during a meeting last month in Damascus with George Mitchell, the U.S. Middle East envoy.

The meeting also discussed re-starting peace talks between Syria and Israel. The Turkish-mediated talks were formally suspended during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December.

“Progress on the Syria-Israel talks is tied to improving Syria’s ties with the United States,” a second diplomat said.

In another possible breakthrough, the diplomats said that Washington has invited Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad to Washington for talks on Iraq, but the visit has not been yet finalized.

A suspected Syrian role in aiding foreign fighters and insurgents in Iraq was a main reason behind legislation in 2004 to impose U.S. sanctions on Syria.

“The Americans are no longer saying to the Syrians ‘you do this, we do that’,” one of the diplomats said.

“They are adopting a broader approach, but the effort to convince Syria to change its behavior is not open ended.”

Editing by Michael Roddy