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US Official, Syrian President Meet in Bid for Improved Ties

One of the highest-ranking U.S. officials to visit Syria in years held talks with Syria's president Wednesday, one day after Washington nominated its first ambassador to the country since 2005.

The U.S. Under Secretary of State, William Burns, said he and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke candidly while meeting in Damascus. Burns said they discussed both areas of disagreement and common ground.

On Tuesday, the White House named long-time U.S. diplomat Robert Ford to serve as ambassador to Syria. Ford, who is fluent in Arabic, now serves as the U.S. deputy ambassador in Iraq.

Burns called the appointment a "clear sign" of America's readiness to improve relations and to pursue a comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis.

The United States said in June that it planned to reinstate its ambassador to Syria, as part of the Obama administration's efforts to improve relations with Syria and advance the Middle East peace process.

Ford's nomination will have to be approved by the U.S. Senate.

The United States withdrew its last ambassador to Syria after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Many countries have blamed Syria for the assassination, but Damascus has denied involvement.

The U.S. has long accused Syria of supporting Islamic militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which the U.S. considers terrorist organizations. Washington also has voiced concern about Syria's human rights record and its role in neighboring Lebanon.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.