US rallies 'Friends of Syria' for meeting

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By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is working with its European and Arab allies to organize the inaugural meeting of the "Friends of Syria" to explore ways to further isolate President Bashar Assad, support his foes and end ongoing violence.

The State Department said Thursday that its top Mideast envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, has been dispatched to Morocco, France and Bahrain to help put the meeting together and determine the group's membership and its mandate. Arab League foreign ministers are due to meet Sunday in Cairo and could announce a date and venue for the meeting after that.

France and Turkey, both of which have historic and commercial interests in Syria, have offered to host the meeting. Morocco, which sponsored the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Assad to step down that Russia and China vetoed, is also a candidate.

"Now that the U.N. Security Council action has been blocked by the double veto, we are compelled to work outside the U.N. system, and so that's why you see this sort of groundswell of work now to get this friends group together," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

Feltman was in Morocco on Wednesday and was meeting Thursday in Paris with French officials as well as with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim, who is there visiting, she said. In Bahrain for a security conference later this week, Feltman will see other Arab and European officials. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Washington on Monday.

In Morocco, Foreign Minister Saadeddin el-Othmani confirmed that Morocco is a candidate to host the meeting but stressed that "nothing is fixed." He said he expected more clarity on the matter after Sunday's Arab League meeting.

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Associated Press reporter Paul Schemm in Rabat, Morocco contributed to this report.

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