DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian President Hafez Assad said Saturday that he welcomes U.S. efforts to reach an Arab-Israeli peace accord and that Israel would be to blame if the efforts fail.
Assad made his remarks at a banquet honoring visiting Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was making his first trip abroad since becoming president in July, 1989.
Sources close to Rafsanjani's delegation said the 13 Western hostages in Lebanon would be one of the main topics of discussion but that they do not expect an early release of the captives.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated the release of the hostages has been blocked by Israel's refusal to free Arab prisoners it holds.
Assad embraced Rafsanjani as the Iranian leader and his 400-member delegation stepped off two Iranian air force Boeing 707 jetliners.
The two leaders went to Assad's palace for a private lunch and met again for dinner.
Assad said at the banquet that they had discussed postwar security issues, the exodus of Iraqi Kurdish refugees and the Arab-Israeli dispute.
He said President Bush had given his personal assurance that Washington would make all possible efforts to reach an Arab-Israeli peace in line with U.N. resolutions.
"We have welcomed this development in the American stand, firstly because we want a just and comprehensive peace and secondly because we see in this development a positive attitude," Assad said.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III ended a Middle East peace mission on Friday to return home for his mother's funeral. Bush said Baker "has made progress" toward peace, although problems remained.
Assad said that "neither Syria nor the Arabs in general will be responsible if the current peace initiative fails. . . . It will be Israel which will cause the failure through its insistence on its intransigent stands."
Both Assad and Rafsanjani called for safeguarding the territorial integrity of neighboring Iraq, which was racked by rebellion following its defeat in the war for Kuwait.
The Iranian sources said another topic for discussion would be a postwar Persian Gulf security arrangement from which Tehran was excluded.
The talks were attended by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh.
Separately, the Iranian sources cautioned against optimism for an early release of the six American and seven other Westerners believed held hostage by pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim fundamentalists in Lebanon--despite widespread recent reports that a release was imminent.
But the most influential Shiite cleric in Lebanon, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, said in remarks published in Beirut Saturday that the hostage issue "has reached an advanced stage of ripeness."
But he added cryptically, "It will not be discussed in Lebanon."
Asked if he meant a hostage release was not expected soon, he replied: "In international contacts, months are equal to minutes and seconds." He did not elaborate.
Rafsanjani is believed eager to shed Iran's terrorist image by ending the hostage saga and normalizing ties with the West.
Syria, whose relations with Washington warmed when it joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, is also believed anxious to hasten the hostage release to prove its power in Lebanon and cement its newfound moderate image.