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Iran, Syria back Palestinian militancy

 Syrian and Iranian presidents, Bashar Assad, right, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speak to reporters at the Ash-Shaeb presidential palace in Damascus, Syr...


Syrian and Iranian presidents, Bashar Assad, right, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speak to reporters at the Ash-Shaeb presidential palace in Damascus, Syr...

The leaders of Iran and Syria reaffirmed their support for "Palestinian resistance" on Tuesday, a defiant message to the U.S. and its Mideast allies who are uneasy over Washington's efforts to forge closer ties with the hard-line government in Tehran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected to meet with the chiefs of Hamas and other Damascus-based Palestinian radical groups during his visit to Syria, said Khaled Abdul-Majid of the Popular Struggle Front said. Iran is a strong supporter of militant Islamic groups in the region, including Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Syria comes as the U.S. is trying to improve strained ties with the two longtime adversaries. But it could turn out to be another reminder of what a divisive role he plays on the world stage. In the past, Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map and questioned the Holocaust.
Sitting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad at a news conference, Ahmadinejad said his alliance with Iran's closest Arab friend was achieving "victories" in preventing "the big powers' offensive to dominate the region."
"Syria and Iran have been from the very beginning united and in agreement to stand on the side of the Palestinian resistance," Ahmadinejad said. "They will continue to do so. We see that the resistance will continue until all occupied territories are liberated."
Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have been sending mixed messages in response to President Barack Obama's calls for dialogue with Iran _ at times taking a moderate tone, only to fall back on a tough line.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is visiting the Middle East, said Tuesday the U.S. is still waiting to see how the Iranians respond to Obama's outreach, but so far the rhetoric from Ahmadinejad has been "not very encouraging."
Gates sought to reassure U.S. Arab allies, who are worried that their rival Iran will be boosted by a U.S. dialogue. He also said a "grand bargain" between Tehran and Washington was unlikely.
There has been widespread speculation in the Middle East that the Obama administration would try to forge a "grand bargain" with Iran, in which Washington would press Israel for concessions in the peace process with the Palestinians in exchange for Tehran rolling back its nuclear program.
"The United States will be very open and transparent about these contacts, and we will keep our friends informed of what is going on so nobody gets surprised," Gates said at a news conference in Egypt before heading to the Saudi capital.
The U.S. overtures to Iran are raising concerns among Washington's Arab allies and Israel. Arab diplomats who met in Cairo Tuesday with Dennis Ross, the State Department's new special envoy who deals with Iran, said they voiced those concerns.
"Some of what he heard was more than just grievances. They warned that Washington should be careful not to be so mild to Iran," said one diplomat who attended. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit expressed similar concerns on Monday.
"Iran's behavior in the region is negative in many aspects and does not help in advancing security, stability and peace," the state-run Middle East News Agency quoted Aboul Gheit as telling Ross.
Moderate Arab countries and strong U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia are growing increasingly concerned that Iran is trying to spread its influence across the Middle East, with its support of Hamas, Hezbollah and other militant groups. That is creating tensions with other Arab states, such as Syria, who are allied with Iran.
Abdul-Majid said the meeting with the Palestinian factions is a message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and what he called the "racist" steps it is taking, such as settlement expansion in areas where Palestinians want a future state.
"It is a message to strengthen the coalition of resistance forces in the region," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
While the Obama administration supports a two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Netanyahu, who took office in March, has so far refused to endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state.
Hamas' top political leader Khaled Mashaal, who is based in Syria, was quoted by the New York Times Tuesday as saying that Hamas is willing to support a two-state solution. But he also said Hamas would not renounce violence against Israel or recognize the Jewish state.
Associated Press Writer Salah Nasrawi contributed to this report from Cairo.

Updated : 2021-05-08 01:35 GMT+08:00