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Syria's Assad seeks dialogue with U.S. under Obama

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria wants to have a constructive dialogue with the United States after years of tension, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a visiting U.S. congressman Saturday.

Syria and the United States are on poor terms because of Damascus’s support for the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

But Damascus sees new U.S. President Barack Obama as less ideological than George W. Bush and as more likely to engage Syria, possibly bringing about a thaw in relations.

Assad stressed the importance of “constructive dialogue between Syria and the United States based on mutual respect and common interest,” the official news agency quoted him as telling Adam Smith, the first U.S. lawmaker to visit since Obama took office on January 20.

Assad presented Smith with an assessment of Middle East politics in the wake of Israel’s 22-day offensive against the Gaza Strip, the agency said. Syria backed Hamas during the conflict.

Smith, a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States and Syria had thorny issues to solve but that a process had to begin.

“We also believe that we have common interest. We all want peace in this region and we all want to fight terrorism. We are hoping that these common interests lead to more dialogue,” Smith, who headed a seven-member delegation, told reporters.

Bush imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, mainly for Damascus’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and extended them during his last year in office.

Under Bush, Washington withdrew its ambassador in Damascus following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik al-Hariri and accused Syria of allowing Islamist fighters to infiltrate Iraq.

A U.S. raid on Syria last year targeted suspected militants linked to al Qaeda. Syria said the attack only killed civilians and closed two U.S. institutions in Damascus in response.

Cooperation between Syria and Iran has also angered Washington.

Assad had said that Syria rejects any conditions for a rapprochement with Washington.

After taking office, Obama said Syria had to be taken into account in U.S. efforts to stabilise the Middle East, although Obama’s Middle East envoy’s first trip to the region excluded Syria.

“I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television.

Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Richard Balmforth