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Syria, Saudi Arabia conciliatory on Lebanon

Syria promised Arab leaders at an annual summit yesterday to co-operate in ending a political crisis in Lebanon, and regional power Saudi Arabia said it saw Damascus as part of the solution.

The conciliatory language on Lebanon offered some relief from the tensions that have built up during preparations for the two-day meeting, which Lebanon and key pro-US Arab leaders are skipping in protest against Syria's Lebanon policy.

The Beirut government is boycotting the summit while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have sent low-level delegations.

Eleven heads of state from the Arab League's 22 members were present at the opening, fewer than normal for an Arab summit, reflecting suspicions that through its local allies Syria has obstructed the election of a new Lebanese president.

The conflict over Lebanon is part of the wider struggle for regional influence between the United States and Syria's ally Iran. Assad dismissed accusations that his country was behind the deadlock in Lebanon, which has not had a president since November because the government and the Syrian-backed opposition cannot agree on the composition of a new cabinet.

"We in Syria are fully prepared to co-operate with Arab or non-Arab efforts ...on condition that they are based on Lebanese national consensus, the basis for stability in Lebanon," Assad said in his opening speech as summit host.

He rejected criticism of Syria's conduct, saying: "On the contrary, the pressures which have been put on Syria for more than a year, and increasingly for the last several months, have been to have Syria intervene in Lebanese internal affairs."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Assad's speech was aimed at showing Syria's willingness to work towards ending the Lebanese crisis.

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