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Assad 'agrees to new peace plan'

Syrian president Bashar Assad has agreed to a new UN-brokered peace plan focusing on containing the most violent areas of the country, then expanding to the entire nation, international envoy Kofi Annan said.

At a news conference in Iran, Mr Annan said the plan must still be presented to the opposition. But he said Mr Assad suggested trying to calm specific areas a day earlier during talks in Damascus aimed at ending the violence, which activists say has killed more than 17,000 people since March 2011.

"(Mr Assad) made a suggestion of building an approach from the ground up in some of the districts where we have extreme violence - to try and contain the violence in those districts and, step by step, build up and end the violence across the country," Mr Annan told reporters in Iran, his first step on a tour of Syria's staunchest allies.

Mr Annan later visited Iraq and met prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to discuss ways to end the 16 months of bloodshed.

The conflict in Syria has defied every international attempt to bring peace, including an earlier effort by Mr Annan, and there was no sign that the latest plan from the UN-Arab envoy will be a breakthrough.

Although the government's crackdown has made Mr Assad an international pariah, he still has the support of strong allies such as Russia, Iran and China. The international community has little appetite for military intervention of the type that helped bring down Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year, and several rounds of sanctions and other attempts to isolate Mr Assad have done little to stop the bloodshed.

Mr Annan's latest efforts to reach out to Syrian allies suggest he sees Mr Assad's allies as integral to solving the crisis. Mr Annan's outreach to Iran in particular appeared to oppose the approach of Washington, which has rejected Iran's participation in helping solve the crisis. Tehran has provided Mr Assad with military and political backing for years, and has kept up its strong support for the regime since the Syrian uprising began.

US state department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Washington doubts Iran will be able to play a constructive role. "If the Iranian regime wants to stop giving direct material support to the Syrian killing machine ... we would welcome that. We're not at that point yet," he said yesterday in Washington.

Critics said Mr Annan's tour of Syria allies smacked of betrayal. Rajeh Khoury, a columnist in Lebanon's leading An-Nahar newspaper, wrote that Mr Annan's actions "give the Syrian regime more time to accomplish the impossible task of crushing the uprising militarily". He added: "His insistence on making Iran part of the solution at a time the opposition sees Iran as part of the problem is extremely dangerous."

Mr Annan said Tehran has offered its support to end the conflict and must be "part of the solution". He told reporters in Tehran after meeting Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi: "My presence here proves that I believe Iran can play a positive role and should therefore be a part of the solution in the Syrian crisis." He said he has "received encouragement and co-operation" from the Iranian government but did not elaborate.

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