US welcomes Arab League attendance at Annapolis

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WASHINGTON, Nov 23 (Reuters) The United States today welcomed a decision by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to attend a Middle East peace conference in Maryland and said this indicated the US-hosted meeting would be serious.

A meeting in Cairo of key Arab League countries agreed on Friday to attend the Annapolis, Maryland, conference the United States hopes will launch serious Palestinian statehood negotiations for the first time in seven years.

Attendance by Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which has been skeptical of US efforts at Arab-Israeli peacemaking, was seen as crucial to the success and credibility of the meeting.

''We welcome the decision by the Arab League follow-up committee to attend the Annapolis conference at the ministerial level. This is a signal they believe this will be a serious and substantive meeting,'' said State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth.

The Cairo meeting brought together foreign ministers from the contact group delegated by the Arab League to follow up on a 2002 Arab peace initiative, as well as ministers from some other Arab countries and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Saudi Arabia had been noncommittal over attending the Annapolis conference but Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters in Cairo he planned to go.

Diplomats had said earlier that Saudi Arabia was considering sending a lower-level official to Annapolis, which would have been a blow to the United States.

U.S. President George W. Bush called Saudi King Abdullah to speak about Annapolis and Britain's former prime minister and Middle East peace envoy, Tony Blair, traveled to Saudi Arabia to urge Riyadh's cooperation.

''The Annapolis conference will show broad international support for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders' efforts and will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace,'' Duckworth said.

''We look forward to seeing them all in Annapolis this Tuesday.'' Syria has also been invited to the conference as part of the Arab League contact group. Damascus has indicated it will attend only if the Golan Heights, which was seized from it in 1967, is discussed at the talks.

Syria said it had been told Golan would be on the agenda at Annapolis, but a State Department spokesman refused to confirm whether it had told Damascus this.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said while the Annapolis conference was aimed at dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian track, no one would stop Syria from speaking about the Golan Heights.

''If Syria chooses to come and wants to speak to its issues, since its issues are detailed in the road map and are a part of a comprehensive peace, certainly nobody is going to rule it out of order,'' Rice said.

Reuters TB VP0120

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