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US Middle East Envoy Adds Stops in Beirut, Damascus

The State Department said Tuesday U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is adding stops in Lebanon and Syria to his current mission to the region aimed at reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The Obama administration has sought to improve ties with Damascus.

The visit to Damascus by U.S. envoy Mitchell is another step in what has been a cautious effort by the Obama administration to draw Syria into diplomatic engagement after years of strained relations.

State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said Mitchell, on his fourth trip to the region since assuming the envoy post in January, will stop in Beirut Thursday and Damascus Friday and Saturday after Jerusalem-based meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Kelly said the visit to Syria is in line with President Barack Obama's commitment to outreach with regional adversaries, reaffirmed in his recent policy speech on U.S.-Islamic relations in Egypt.

"In many ways it's a follow-up to the President's speech in Cairo," Kelly said. "You know that this administration is committed to a broad-based comprehensive peace dealing with all the different players in the region. And we decided this was an appropriate time for Senator Mitchell to go to Syria. This is a very high priority for this administration and we're going to pursue this vigorously in the coming months."

The former Bush administration had largely shunned contact with Syria, accusing it of facilitating the transit of Islamic militants through its territory to Iraq, and of supporting extremists in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syrian officials were implicated.

But U.S. officials have lately credited Syria with tightening border controls with Iraq and largely refraining from interference in Lebanon's election process, which culminated in this week's victory by the pro-Western "March 14th" coalition.

Mitchell's scheduled visit to Damascus was preceded by two trips there since March by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and White House National Security Council Middle East expert Daniel Shapiro.

Officials here say Mitchell, the former Senate Majority Leader and Northern Ireland peace negotiator, had obtained a Syrian visa several weeks ago but did not want to make the visit until after the Lebanese election.

U.S. officials Monday welcomed the Lebanese election outcome as an unambiguous victory for the March 14th movement over the Iranian and Syrian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah, which is listed by the United States as a terrorist organization.

A senior official said the United States would be happy to reconsider its policy on Hezbollah, if the Shiite group scrapped its militia wing and became a normal political party.