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Blair: Britain and Syria Have Differences, but Damascus Key Player in Middle East

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and British Prime Minister Tony Blair disagreed Monday over Iraq and terrorism in the Middle East following their talks in London. But they agreed on the need to push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

President Assad told a news conference his country voted in favor of a U.N. resolution to get weapons inspectors back inside Iraq as the best way to avoid a war.

Mr. Assad said he is pleased so far with the results of the inspections. "I am optimistic now. Until now what we see is good cooperation from the Iraqi government. We hope this cooperation will continue until this crisis is solved peacefully," Mr. Assad said.

Mr. Assad rejected suggestions that Syria expel Palestinian groups that have claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Israel. He denies that Syria harbors terrorists. "Of course we don't have in Syria what is called organizations supporting terrorism. We have press offices. These offices express the opinions of Palestinians who live inside of Palestine and outside of Palestine. And the Palestinians have the right to have someone to express their opinion," he said.

Prime Minister Blair said he cannot disguise the differences he has with Mr. Assad on Iraq and terrorism, but he said it is important to reach out to Syria as a key player in the Middle East. "We do not hide where we disagree. Those disagreements are obvious and clear. But I believe that a process of engagement with Syria is the right way forward," Mr. Blair said.

The leaders also discussed the conflict between Israel and Palestinians, and Mr. Blair announced afterward at parliament that he is inviting Palestinian officials to London in January.

He said they will discuss Palestinian reforms and the peace process. Mr. Blair is also inviting representatives of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, which form what is called the "quartet" of Middle East mediators.