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Assad Says Syria is 'Integral' to Resolving Mideast Problems

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says any country that wants to solve Middle East problems must hold talks with his government.

Mr. Assad told French television Sunday that Syria should be an "integral part" of any peace settlement in the region.

He also expressed doubt that Syria and Israel can make progress on a peace deal while U.S. President George Bush remains in office.

The Syrian president was in Paris for a summit with more than 40 regional leaders to launch a new Mediterranean Union. The summit marked a return to the world stage for Mr. Assad after years of isolation.

Israeli officials say Mr. Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert exchanged messages at the summit using Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an intermediary. Mr. Olmert says Israel hopes to have direct contact with Syria soon.

The two countries have held several rounds of talks through Turkish mediators that focus on the fate of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.

The Israeli prime minister also said Sunday that a peace accord with the Palestinians has, in his words, never been so close.

Mr. Olmert met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Paris summit and said peace talks between the two sides are very serious. Both leaders called on the European Union to play a larger role in the process.