- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

LONDON Britain yesterday started a diplomatic initiative aimed at bringing the Palestinian issue back into the limelight through a London conference next month, while also hoping to woo Syrian President Bashar Assad into cutting back on support for radical Palestinian groups.

The Palestinian initiative is aimed at showing Prime Minister Tony Blair's commitment to a twin-track approach to Middle East activity supporting a tough line against Iraq while believing that the Israeli-Palestinian issue needs to be tackled simultaneously.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last night told Channel 4 News that the government would have preferred talks to have gotten under way on the "final status" of the Palestinian-Israel settlement, but a start needed to be made to ending violence.

During Mr. Assad's visit, the first official trip to Britain by any Syrian president, Mr. Blair sought to cement the Syrian leader's support in any military action in Iraq.

Syria, despite voting in favor of the U.N. inspection resolution on Iraq last month, has sought to distance itself from any attack. Mr. Assad told reporters that anyone who wanted a war with Iraq was "psychologically ill," but did not say whether Syria would provide support if war breaks out.

Overshadowing a press briefing after the two leaders met at the prime minister's official residence was the issue of terrorism.

Mr. Assad said Hamas and Islamic Jihad, responsible for numerous suicide bombings and attacks against Israelis, "do not have offices in Damascus, only press offices" and urged reporters to avoid focusing on what he called "terminology."

Most of Islamic Jihad's claims of responsibility for suicide bombings and other operations come from Damascus, where its leader is widely reported to be based.

Moments earlier, Mr. Blair proclaimed Britain's condemnation of all terrorist acts. He then added, "however" before saying Britain felt it was important to shore up its relations with so pivotal a country as Syria.

"There are obviously going to be differences between us, and we condemn totally anybody who is engaged in terrorist activity of any sort at all, wherever in the world," Mr. Blair said.

The visit followed a groundbreaking visit to Syria last year by Mr. Blair, who was publicly tongue-lashed by Mr. Assad about Britain's Middle East policies.

There has been a thaw in relations, though. Briefing reporters, British officials sought to draw comfort from what they called a limited improvement in human rights in Syria, though Mr. Blair called for further moves toward political freedom.

Syrian human rights campaigners say little has changed since Mr. Assad succeeded his father, who died two years ago.

Mr. Assad is to meet Queen Elizabeth today.

Mr. Assad studied ophthalmology in London from 1992 to 1994 and last year married British-born Asma al-Akhras, who is of Syrian descent.

The two countries also have begun some intelligence coordination to counter Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

However, Britain is concerned about Syria's trade ties with Iraq, especially the flow of oil through a Syrian pipeline in violation of U.N. economic sanctions.

Britain also has expressed concern about a suspected Syrian chemical weapons program.

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