- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar Assad urged leaders of the Ba’ath Party to revive the Syrian economy and fight corruption, but made no mention of political reform in a speech opening the ruling party’s conference yesterday.

“We have faced numerous difficulties because of the weakness of the administrative structure, the lack of qualified people, and because of the chronic accumulation of these problems,” Mr. Assad said in a rare admission of government failure.

“On top of this, international conditions and successive events in our region have had a negative effect on investment and development opportunities, where we had hoped for better,” he added, a reference to tensions with the United States and Israel, the insurgency in neighboring Iraq and Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon.

The 10th Ba’ath Party congress convened while Syria faces increasing international scrutiny. The country, already under U.S. sanctions for its purported role in fueling the Iraqi insurgency, is still reeling from its April withdrawal from Lebanon, ending a 29-year-military presence in its tiny neighbor.

Syria was forced to pull out its troops after the Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which the Lebanese opposition blamed Damascus. Syria has denied the charge.

The only way to improve living conditions and public services “is to overcome failure in our performance and address the negative practices which hamper our progress and constrain our reform project,” Mr. Assad told the 1,221 Ba’ath members.

Without giving examples of graft, Mr. Assad said: “We need more effective and decisive mechanisms to combat [corruption].”

The delegates, elected by the party’s 2 million members, stood and cheered as a waving and smiling Mr. Assad strode down the steps of the conference hall. Then they observed a minute’s silence for Mr. Assad’s late father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, and those who fell in war with Israel.

The last congress of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party unanimously elected Mr. Assad secretary-general in 2000 after his father’s death.

The Syrian leader faces a long list of demands from the international community and at home, where pro-democracy activists have become increasingly vocal in their demands for more freedoms.

Analysts say Mr. Assad is likely to seek a middle way, easing some of the pressure by seeming flexible while maintaining a firm grip on the country.

Opposition figures have said the congress is unlikely to produce more than cosmetic change.

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