President Barack Obama's special Middle East envoy is laying the groundwork for a visit to Syria as a way to push forward talks between the Arab world and Israel, U.S. officials said Friday.
Former Sen. George Mitchell and his team have applied for Syrian visas for an as-yet unannounced trip that could come within a month. The officials, who insisted on anonymity because no announcement has been approved, cautioned that Mitchell's schedule is still uncertain and that even if the visas are granted Mitchell may not visit Syria.
If Mitchell travels to Syria, he would be the highest-level U.S. visitor there since Obama took office. Lower level officials, including Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, a Middle East expert at the White House, have visited Damascus twice.
Despite the overtures, Obama last week renewed Bush-era economic sanctions against Syria.
In addition to urging Syria to seek peace with Israel, the United States has been urging Syria to better police its border with Iraq. U.S. commanders in Baghdad say the Syrian border is an entry point for Islamic radicals for their attacks against American and Iraqi forces.
Obama has made reviving Arab-Israeli peace talks - and reviving the U.S. image in the Muslim world - a priority. He has meetings in the next two weeks with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders at the White House. And he travels to Egypt next month to deliver a major televised address.
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