DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria's 73-year-old vice president will resign to make way for a younger generation to take power, a Baath Party (search) official said Tuesday, echoing a theme of a four-day congress of the ruling party.
Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam (search) indicated his intentions Monday on the first day of the session, said Ahmed Haj Ali, a Baath Party official.
"The man would like to open the way for the younger generation," Haj Ali told The Associated Press. "It is his personal wish. He wants to give a positive example to others."
There has been no official announcement of the resignation of Khaddam, who wielded considerable influence in Lebanon for many years as Syria's top official for the neighboring state. Emigrants Affairs Minister Bouthaina Shaaban, the spokeswoman for the congress, denied Monday that Khaddam was going to resign.
More than 1,200 delegates met in a closed session Tuesday to discuss items on the congress' agenda, Haj Ali said. In his opening speech, President Bashar Assad (search) urged the party to revive the economy and combat corruption, but offered no plans for political reform in the tightly controlled country.
The congress comes at a crucial time for Syria (search). The government is under increasing international scrutiny. The United States has imposed sanctions on Syria for its alleged role in fueling the Iraqi insurgency and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction — charges that Damascus has denied. International and Lebanese pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April, ending a 29-year military presence there.
At home, pro-democracy activists and Kurds have become increasingly vocal in their demands for more freedom and civil rights.
The Baath Party claims 2 million members. For Syrians, ties to the party have long been a means of ensuring progress in the workplace or attaining coveted jobs.
Assad told the party it had to "adapt creatively to the pace of change which today's world sees in every field."
Syrian opposition figures were disappointed by Assad's failure to propose political change in his speech. Prominent writer Michel Kilo said Assad's focus on the economy showed he follows the "Chinese model" of reform — liberalizing the economy but not the political system.
Khaddam became vice president in 1984 after serving as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. After President Hafez Assad died in 2000, Khaddam served as interim president until Assad's son, Bashar, was elected leader.
During the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, Khaddam was Syria's top official for the country, frequently visiting Beirut and heavily involved in day-to-day politics.
He gradually handed over his Lebanese responsibilities during the late 1990s, but remained a close friend of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search).
Khaddam was the only Syrian official to attend the funeral of Hariri after he was killed by a bomb in Beirut on Feb. 14.
The Lebanese opposition blamed Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government for Hariri's assassination — a charge both rejected.