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Syria to join Mideast talks hosted by U.S.


DAMASCUS, Syria - Syria announced Sunday that it will attend the Annapolis summit on Mideast peace, saying it would send its deputy foreign minister because the future of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights had been put on the agenda.

The official news agency, SANA, said Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad would travel to the U.S.-backed conference, a decision made "after the Syria track was added to the conference agenda," the agency said. Syria had said it will attend only if the conference discusses the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed.

Syria did not explain why it will not be sending its foreign minister, like other Arab participants, but the decision appears to indicate that it is not entirely confident the conference will address its concerns over the Golan Heights.

The two-day conference, opens tonight with a dinner in Washington and moves Tuesday to Annapolis, Md.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said that the Golan Heights were "not specifically on the agenda" but attendees would be able to freely raise issues.

A spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel nonetheless saw the announcement as a positive development.

"The meetings are clearly about the Israeli-Palestinian process, but could be the beginning of new avenues to peace in the Middle East," spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

Broad Arab attendance at the Maryland summit was a key goal for the U.S., which is hoping that could help bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

"This large number signals broad support for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts," said Gordon Johndroe, President Bush`s National Security Council spokesman.

En route to Washington, Olmert said before Syria`s announcement that Israel would "favorably" consider negotiations with Syria if conditions ripen. Israel wants Syria to break out of Iran`s orbit and stop harboring Palestinian and Lebanese militants opposed to the Jewish state`s existence.

Nearly 50 nations and organizations are set to attend the summit. Iran has not been invited.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said before the Syrian announcement that the peace conference would only serve the interests of Israel, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

"The peace conference has no benefit for the oppressed Palestinian nation. It is only for supporting the Zionists occupiers," Ahmadinejad said.

"Participation in this summit is an indication of the lack of intelligence of some so-called politicians," he said, accusing the participants of giving concessions to the "Zionists."

Iran is a primary backer of Hamas, the militant group that seized the Gaza Strip from moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas` Fatah movement in June. Tehran says its support of Palestinian groups is limited to humanitarian aide.

Ahmadinejad is famous for his anti-Israel rhetoric. Since 2005, his calls for the disappearance of the Jewish state have prompted international criticism.

Fear over Shiite Iran`s growing influence and regional ambitions may have helped push largely Sunni Arab states and the Israelis toward stronger peace efforts.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declined to criticize the Syrian decision, saying his group would have preferred if the Arabs collectively didn`t go to the conference.

"The Syrian leadership is the one to evaluate its own interests, the way it sees fit," he said. "Hamas generally rejects the collective participation of the Arab official regimes."

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