Source AP ©

Syria to take part in Mideast peace conference

11 Arab nations, including Syria, will take part in President George W. Bush's Mideast peace conference this fall.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was outlining the expected agenda for the meeting, including the invitation list, at the United Nations on Sunday to representatives of an international coalition trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the official said.

In addition to the Israelis and Palestinians, those to be invited include the diplomatic group known as the Quartet - the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia - and Arab League states studying a broader peace deal with Israel, the official said.

They include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen.

They are members of a committee charged with following up an Arab League offer to recognize Israel in exchange for territory. Only two, Egypt and Jordan, have peace deals with Israel and some, notably Syria and Saudi Arabia, remain technically at war with the Jewish state.

Many Arab states have said they see no use for Bush's conference unless it has clear goals and a realistic chance of meeting them. The U.S. official said Rice believed she could allay those fears in her talks with the Quartet and the Arab League members on Sunday.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Rice had not yet made her presentation to the Quartet, its new representative to the region, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Arab diplomats.

Before the Quartet session, Rice held separate meetings with Blair and the foreign ministers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Asked after his meeting with Rice whether Saudi Arabia would attend the conference, the Saudi, Prince Saud al-Faisal, was noncommittal.

The Palestinians want the conference to produce an outline for a peace deal; the Israelis want more vague declarations.

Rice was in the Middle East last week and plans to return to the region soon to continue the planning for the meeting.

Rice's visit last week coincided with Israel's decision to declare the Gaza Strip, which the radical Hamas movement seized in June, as "hostile territory." That designation dealt a potential blow to efforts to bolster moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who now runs only the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Israel on Sunday approved the release of 90 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to Abbas. Palestinian officials reacted with disappointment, calling for larger steps at a time when the power struggle with Hamas and peace process are at critical points.

The U.N. meeting will set the stage for separate talks Monday involving Bush, Abbas and Blair.