Bashar Assad sworn in as president, discusses economy, Israel

DAMASCUS, Syria - Standing under a huge portrait of his late father, Bashar Assad assumed Syria's presidency before a cheering legislature Monday and quickly rejected Western-style democracy and territorial concessions to Israel.

Assad, a 34-year-old former eye doctor and the chosen successor of Hafez Assad, addressed the People's Assembly, or parliament, after a swearing-in ceremony that finalized his smooth ascent to power. He pledged to carry on his father's policies.

''We cannot apply the democracy of others on ourselves,'' he said in his inaugural address. ''We have to have our democratic experience which is special to us, which stems from our history, culture, civilization and which is a response to the needs of our society and the requirements of our reality.''

''The political strategy which (Hafez Assad) devised and supervised ... proved a great success until this very day,'' he said.

Discussing Mideast peace, Assad said the recovery of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967, ''is at the top of our national priorities.'' He urged the United States ''to play its full role as an honest broker and a co-sponsor'' of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

He stressed Syria will not deviate from his late father's rejection of any territorial compromises.

''We have the urge to reach a state of peace, but we have no urge to compromise an inch of our territory,'' he said.

In Thurmont, Md., State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent messages of congratulations to Assad. Clinton and Albright are attending Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Thurmont.

Boucher said Albright also welcomed Assad's affirmation of Syria's interest in the Mideast peace process and his recognition of Washington's role.

Assad's inaugural address was met with the qualified approval of his exiled uncle Rifaat Assad, who tried to overthrow Hafez Assad in 1983-84 and said after his brother's June 10 death that he would return to Syria at the ''appropriate'' time to run for the presidency.

A statement issued on behalf of Rifaat Assad and faxed to The Associated Press in Cairo said that he supported the ''positives'' in Bashar Assad's address.

''Dr. Rifaat Assad declares that the contents of Dr. Bashar Assad's speech give rise to hope for a new corrective movement which Dr. Rifaat Assad called for in his first statement on June 12,'' said the statement, which did not say why Rifaat Assad modified his stand on his nephew's ascent to power.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told The Associated Press: ''If Bashar wants to take Syria to a new era of modernization and progress, the road goes necessarily through a peace agreement with Israel.''

Sneh is a close adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Bashar Assad told Syrians he will improve their lives by revitalizing the economy, reforming the administration and eliminating corruption.

Earlier, he arrived at parliament and was met by cheering crowds chanting: ''With our blood and soul we sacrifice ourselves to you.'' Inside, he placed his right hand on the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and vowed to ''respect the constitution and the laws and preserve the people's interests.''

The hall, decorated in sumptuous traditional Syrian wood inlay and dominated by a large portrait of Hafez Assad, echoed with thunderous applause as 249 of parliament's 250 delegates - one member was on sick leave - gave the new president a standing ovation.

Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University, said there was not much new in the speech, particularly on the issue of Syria-Israel peace talks - but there were signs thing could gradually change. Assad's pledge to bring his country ''into the 21st century'' means ''Israel must give him a chance,'' Zisser told Israel television.

In Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said his minister, David Levy, was waiting to review a translation of the speech before commenting.

Assad's inauguration to a seven-year term as Syria's 16th president comes little more than a month after his father's death. Running as the only candidate, the younger Assad was elected last week by 97.29 percent of voters in a referendum orchestrated by the ruling Baath party.

Since the election, pictures and banners with slogans supporting the new leader have to a large extent disappeared from the streets, government buildings and car windows of Damascus. Their absence has been seen as sign of the new president's more modern approach to politics: He reportedly ordered their removal and has urged the state-run media to refrain from the exaggerated praise common under his autocratic father.

His speech Monday was interrupted more than a dozen times by applause. He spoke at length about economic development - the major concern in a country where unemployment is believed to be 20 percent and economic growth has fallen to 2 to 3 percent since 1996.

Assad promised to improve Syrians' lives by introducing transparency and accountability in government. He said he will gradually change the economy by modernizing antiquated laws, eliminating bureaucracy and revitalizing the private and public sectors.

''I find it absolutely necessary to call upon every single citizen to participate in the process of development and modernization,'' he said.

The new president, who has spearheaded a two-year anti-corruption campaign, also indicated he will continue the purge. ''There is no escape from bringing the careless, the corrupt and the evildoers to justice,'' he said.

The purge has already landed two ministers in prison, and former Prime Minister Mahmoud el-Zoubi committed suicide moments before a police commander could deliver a summons for his arrest.


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