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Syria Dialogue Not A Threat To Lebanon, Says US

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BEIRUT — The United States sought Friday to reassure Lebanon that its efforts to repair relations with that country's long-dominant neighbor, Syria, do not pose a threat.

President Barack Obama is sending a senior U.S. diplomat and a White House official to Syria to evaluate the chances of opening a dialogue with the country, which former President George W. Bush had sought to isolate.

That makes some politicians in Lebanon wary. In recent years, the country has succeeded in breaking away from nearly three decades of political and military domination by Syria, a break driven in large part by suspicions that Syria was behind the assassination of a former prime minister in Beirut in 2005. Syria denies any role in the killing.

The two U.S. officials stopped in Beirut Friday to stress that the Obama administration stood beside Lebanon, whose pro-Western parliamentary majority has looked to America for support in its standoff with political rivals allied with Syria.

The State Department's top envoy on the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, told a news conference that the visit was "to tell Lebanese officials, to tell the Lebanese people on behalf of President Obama's new administration in Washington that U.S. support for Lebanon will continue, that the U.S. strongly backs Lebanon's independence and sovereignty."

Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, and White House official Daniel Shapiro were to travel to Syria's capital, Damascus, as early as Saturday.

By engaging Syria, Washington wants to try to persuade it to end its support for Hamas and Hezbollah militants and to pull it away from its alliance with Iran. It also wants Syria to stop what Washington calls its interference in Lebanese affairs.

For its part, Syria is looking for U.S. help in starting up direct peace talks with Israel aimed at winning the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Relations between the U.S. and Syria reached a low point after the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a truck bombing that was widely blamed on Syria.

The U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Damascus, and anti-Syrian protests in Beirut as well as pressure from the U.S. and other nations forced Damascus to withdraw its army from Lebanon. That effectively ended Syria's 29-year dominance of its smaller Arab neighbor.

The Bush administration regularly accused Syria of seeking to destabilize Lebanon and sought to isolate it. The Obama administration is seeking a different approach through dialogue.

Feltman said his visit to Damascus was an opportunity to start "using engagement as a tool to promote our objectives in the region."