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Syria: We Are Looking Forward To US Envoy Mitchell Visit

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LONDON — Syria's foreign minister said Friday his country is working to rebuild its diplomatic relationship with the United States.

Walid al-Moallem told reporters in London that his country is looking forward to a visit by U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell as "the first step of dialogue." Mitchell is due in Damascus on Saturday for his second visit to Damascus since he took up his post. The trip is part of the Obama administration's efforts to engage Syria and prod it into playing a U.S.-friendly role in the region.

Syria is seen as a major player in the area because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its intermittent peace talks with Israel. Syria also maintains close links with Iran, whose disputed nuclear program is a matter of international concern.

Al-Moallem said Syria would lobby Mitchell on the issue of the Golan Heights – a strategic plateau seized by Israel in 1967 and which Syria wants back. Asked if a visit by President Barack Obama to Syria is being planned, al-Moallem said there is no formal invitation, but that "we welcome Obama if he wishes to come."

Al-Moallem met his British counterpart, David Miliband, in London, and both expressed reservations about a French proposal for a new international conference on the Middle East.

Al-Moallem said such a gathering would serve no purpose without prior agreements among the parties involved.

"Such conferences before have failed (with) repercussions for the region," al-Moallem said.

Miliband suggested that some Middle Eastern countries' patience with international peace conferences is wearing thin.

"They're pretty sick of processes – what they want is a plan," Miliband said.

The two ministers said they discussed Arab-Israeli relations and the situation in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan during their meeting.

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