DAMASCUS, Syria – Former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) met Saturday with Syria's president and said he was hopeful that strained U.S.-Syrian relations could be improved, provided Washington seized "a moment of opportunity" in the Middle East.
The United States has accused Syria (search) of doing too little to stop insurgents from infiltrating into Iraq to attack coalition forces. Washington also has imposed sanctions on Damascus, accusing it of seeking weapons of mass destruction and hosting Palestinian groups Washington deems to be terrorist organizations.
Syria denies the accusations but says it cannot fully control its long, porous border with Iraq.
Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., met for two hours with President Bashar Assad (search), then with Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, with both meetings centering on Iraq and how to prevent militants from moving from Syria into neighboring Iraq.
"I think we found a great deal of areas of mutual interest, some common concerns and some possibilities for initiatives that could be taken in the future to strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and Syria," Kerry told reporters after meeting with al-Sharaa.
"I leave here with a sense that we can improve our relationship. There are significant possibilities, particularly with the elections in Iraq and the elections in the West Bank ... This is the moment of opportunity for the Middle East, for the U.S. and for the world. I hope that we would seize that opportunity."
Assad stressed "the importance of dialogue between the two sides over all issues under discussion, especially those of common interest," Syria's official news agency reported.
Kerry, who lost the election to President Bush in November, said he and Assad discussed Iraq, security, Lebanon and weapons of mass destruction.
Imad Moustafa, Syria's ambassador to the United States who attended the meeting with Assad, said Syrian-U.S. relations are passing through a "critical but positive" stage and that his country wants constructive dialogue with the Bush administration.
In September, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution calling on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and dismantle the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group. Syria, with some 14,000 troops stationed in Lebanon, is the main power broker in that country.
More recently, President Bush has warned Syria and Iran against "meddling" in the internal affairs of Iraq. Washington and Baghdad both have said that key support for the insurgency in Iraq was coming from a half brother of Saddam Hussein and Baath Party leaders based in Syria.
Kerry, who is on a two-week tour of the Middle East, arrived Friday from Iraq, where he met U.S. troops in the volatile northern city of Mosul.
Kerry, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will be in the West Bank for Sunday's Palestinian election and is expected to visit a polling place.
After Kerry left the Foreign Ministry on Saturday, 13-year-old Mustafa al-Nabulsi approached him with a drawing of the senator as a soldier in his Vietnam days.
"You have made me much more important than I was, though. You made me a general," Kerry said.
"I wish you were the president," al-Nabulsi said.
"Thank you very much. So do I," Kerry said.