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Clinton: US officials holding talks in Syria

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[March 07, 2009]  ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday that talks were underway between two U.S. representatives and Syrian officials in Damascus.

The Obama administration's decision to send Jeffrey Feltman, the top State Department envoy on the Mideast, and Daniel Shapiro from the White House to Syria was the most significant sign yet that it is ready to improve relations with the Syrian government after years of tension.

The two American officials held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem shortly after arriving in the Syrian capital Saturday. But it was not clear whether they would meet with President Bashar Assad during the visit, which was ignored by state-run newspapers in an indication of Damascus' cautious approach.

Clinton also said President Barack Obama will visit Turkey in the "next month or so."

At a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, she said Obama had asked her to deliver the message that he would visit soon and said the two allies will consult on the safest, most effective way to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.

Turkey is an ally seen as key to resolving several U.S. foreign policy problems, including moving the U.S. military out of Iraq, blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions and turning around the war in Afghanistan.

Turkey has said it is ready to serve as an exit route for U.S. troops pulling out of Iraq. The southern Incirlik air base has been used for transfer of U.S. troops and equipment to Iraq and to Afghanistan.

The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. The killing was widely blamed on Syria - a charge Damascus denies.

Anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon and international pressure eventually forced Damascus to withdraw its army from neighboring Lebanon after nearly three decades of Syrian domination. But the U.S. has accused Syria of supporting terrorism and has not reinstated its ambassador.

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On the Syrian side, Assad has welcomed improved ties, something he has long sought but was hampered by the Bush administration's attempts to isolate his country. Assad has said he is impressed by Obama's friendly gestures but was still waiting to see results.

Clinton talked with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for nearly two hours at his residence before visiting the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's national founder. There, she recalled being in Ankara during her husband's presidency and said she had returned to help Obama promote "the work the U.S. and Turkey must do to forge peace, prosperity and progress."

Erdogan's office said in a statement that the two discussed bilateral relations, the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan and combatting terrorism.

[Associated Press]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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