Syria's Deputy FM Invited for Talks in Washington

Upcoming visit - the first in about five years - is part of U.S. efforts to improve strained relations.

A senior Syrian official has been invited to Washington for talks, a U.S. Embassy official said Monday, in the latest signal of the Obama administration's efforts to improve relations with a country deemed a state sponsor of terrorism.

The upcoming visit by Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, is the first in about five years and is part of U.S. efforts to improve strained relations with Damascus.

Mekdad, who is currently in New York as part of the Syrian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly meetings, will fly to Washington on Monday for talks with U.S. government officials on a range of issues, the embassy official said.

The Syrian diplomat's visit is part of a continuing dialogue with the Syrian government that began in March, the official said, without giving details. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.

Mekdad's visit comes amid rising tensions between Syria and Iraq after Baghdad accused Damascus of serving as a launching pad for violence in Iraq.

Iraq is demanding Syria hand over two members of Saddam Hussein's now-outlawed Baath Party who are blamed by Baghdad for the Aug. 19 truck bombings that killed more than 100 people in Baghdad.

Syria rejected Iraq's request, saying it had failed to provide evidenceimplicating the two suspects.

In March, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, and National Security Council member Daniel Shapiro, visited Syria. Since that time, various U.S. government officials have visited Syria, including U.S. special Mideast envoy George Mitchell.

The U.S. has also sent military delegations twice to Syria to discuss cooperation to help stabilize Iraq. The U.S. has long complained that Syria has allowed insurgents to cross its border into Iraq. Syria has rejected the charges.

The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian interference in Lebanon following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

America has long wanted Syria to drop support for militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas that oppose the Middle East peace efforts and hopes to peel Syria way from its alliance with Iran - two demands that Syria has rejected.

The Syrians want a strong American hand in Middle East peacemaking to regain territory they lost to Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Improvement in bilateral ties also could result in easing economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by Washington over Syria's alleged support for terrorism.