By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The United States has invited a Syrian official to Washington for the first time in five years as part of its efforts to improve relations with the Damascus government, a U.S. official and diplomats said Sunday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad will visit Washington Monday to discuss Iraq and U.S. sanctions on Syria in a move that could help a slow rapprochement between the two countries, started by U.S. President Barack Obama soon after he took office in January, the diplomats said.
The visit comes as tension between Syria and Iraq grows, with Baghdad accusing Damascus of harboring Saddam Hussein followers suspected of being behind deadly attacks in Iraq.
"Deputy Foreign Minister Mekdad will meet with U.S. government officials on a range of issues," the U.S. State Department official told Reuters, without giving details. "His visit is part of a continuing dialogue with Syria."
The United States sent a security delegation twice to Damascus this year to discuss cooperation on Iraq and steps that Syria could take to prevent infiltration of fighters and supplies through its borders into Iraq.
But Iraq withdrew its ambassador from Syria after two bomb attacks in Baghdad on August 19 killed 95 people.
Damascus, which denied having a link to the attack, responded in kind. The Syrian government has also refused to hand over wanted members of the Iraqi Baath Party living in Syria, saying it was not convinced of the evidence against them.
A suspected Syrian role in foreign fighters' infiltration in Iraq was behind U.S. sanctions on Syria that were imposed following a 2004 U.S. law, as well as Syria's policy toward Lebanon and support for Palestinian militant groups.
The United States wants Syria's help in forging a deal between Israel and the Palestinians through its influence on the Palestinian group Hamas, which is opposed to President Mahmoud Abbas's approach to talks with Israel.
In Lebanon, Washington wants Syria to help in the formation of a new government led by its ally Saad al-Hariri, son of Rafik al-Hariri, a well connected Lebanese parliamentarian and former prime minister who was assassinated in Beirut in 2005.
Washington had blamed Syria for instability in Lebanon in the past and withdrew its ambassador in Damascus following the Hariri assassination.
The U.S. State Department announced in June that a U.S. ambassador would be restored to Damascus without giving a date.
"Obama has to have something to show for his overture toward Syria, and the Syrians may have to deliver more," one source following the talks between the two sides said.
Another source said Syria expects the United States to push Israel to resume peace talks with Damascus, which were suspended last year. George Mitchell, Obama's Middle East peace envoy, had visited Damascus twice but Syria was not included on his latest trip to the region this month.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Syria, is expected to go to Cairo this week for talks with Egyptian officials about new proposals by Cairo to bring about a reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah faction.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)