Assad lauds Obama policy of talks

DAMACUS: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad welcomed on Thursday the policy of dialogue with his country initiated by his US counterpart Barack Obama.

Assad said he "appreciates that President Obama has adopted dialogue as the way to deal with difficult issues," a reference to years of sour relations with former president George W. Bush.

He was speaking during a meeting with visiting US Congressman Tim Walz and Senator Ted Kaufman, both members of Obama's Democratic party, the official Sana news agency reported.

Assad spoke of the "need to work to lift the obstacles that are hampering Syrian-American relations."

Ties between Washington and Damascus became strained after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the assassination of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri in 2005 that was blamed on Syria. Damascus denies any involvement.

Washington recalled its ambassador in February 2005 following Hariri's murder.

Obama's new top Middle East envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, visited Syria in March in what was the first high-level US trip in four years. He returned earlier this month for further meetings, describing them as constructive and vowing to pursue dialogue.

Other congressional delegations have also visited Syria.

Syria and key US-ally Israel engaged in indirect Turkish-sponsored peace talks last year following an eight-year hiatus, but they were suspended after Israel's war on the Gaza Strip in December-January.

Assad said in March that Syria could hold direct peace talks with Israel if the United States acted as an arbitrator.

The United States accuses Syria and its non-Arab ally Iran of giving material support to the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah in their conflicts with Israel.

It has also charged that Syria turned a blind eye to Islamist militants entering Iraq through its border.