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Syria confirms willingness to attend U.N. peace talks

BAGHDAD The Syrian government has agreed in principle to take part in an international conference in Geneva next month aimed at ending the country's civil war, its foreign minister said Sunday.

The comments by Walid al-Moallem marked the first direct confirmation that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is ready to send representatives to the U.N.-sponsored conference. Late last week, Syria ally Russia said the regime is willing to participate.

Sunday's statement puts more pressure on Syria's main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, to signal acceptance as well. The group was meeting in Istanbul for the fourth day Sunday to come up with a unified position on the proposed peace talks, elect new leaders and expand membership.

Much about the conference remains up in the air, including its date, agenda and list of participants. There are also still yawning gaps between the two sides on what the meeting should accomplish.

Syrian opposition leaders have said they are willing to attend the Geneva talks, but that Assad's departure from power must top the agenda of any political transition. Assad said earlier this month that his future won't be determined by international talks and that he will only step down after elections are held.

Louay Safi, a senior opposition member, said Sunday that those conditions still stand, but that the Coalition currently is bogged down with disagreements over expansion and can't issue a definitive statement on participation in the Geneva talks.

Al-Moallem said Sunday that talks in Geneva present a "good opportunity for a political solution for the crisis in Syria," but did not say under what terms the Assad government would dispatch representatives.

He spoke at a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad, where he was making an unannounced visit.

Despite such upbeat comments, the Syrian opposition's Western and Arab allies are skeptical about the regime's commitment to negotiations. They have warned Assad that they will step up aid to Syrian rebels if the regime does not negotiate in good faith.

At the same time, fighting has continued unabated inside Syria. For the past week, regime troops and allies from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia have waged an offensive against the strategic rebel-held town of Qusair in western Syria. They have gained ground amid heavy shelling, but rebels have held some positions.

The Qusair battle has laid bare Hezbollah's growing role in the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside Assad's troops, initially tried to play down its involvement, but could no longer do so after dozens of its fighters were killed in Qusair and buried in large funerals in Lebanon.

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