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Syrian opposition says Assad can avoid trial if he leaves

BEIRUT — Syria’s opposition coalition gave qualified backing Monday to its leader’s surprise offer last week for a dialogue with President Bashar Assad to end the civil war, pressing him to respond definitively and even offering the added inducement that he could avoid trial if he resigned and left the country.

Although the offer made by the opposition leader, Mouaz al-Khatib, was by his own admission a personal gambit and was initially greeted with a torrent of criticism inside the Syrian opposition movement, his colleagues in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces basically endorsed it over the weekend.

While some complained that al-Khatib had not consulted them before making the offer and a few even called for his resignation, others went along in part to counter the appearance of fractiousness that has long been a weakness in the opposition.

Al-Khatib, a respected Sunni cleric in exile who once was the head imam at the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, said he would engage in dialogue with Assad’s government only if it released 160,000 political prisoners and renewed all expired passports held by members of the Syrian diaspora, which includes large numbers of dissidents.

On Sunday, an aide to Assad gave a vague response. The aide, Ali Haidar, Syria’s minister of national reconciliation, said in an interview with Russia Today, a Kremlin-financed news organization sympathetic to Syria’s government, that the government was open to talks with any opposition members who reject violence. He also said it was willing to address the passport issue but not necessarily the release of prisoners. Haidar said the 160,000 figure was exaggerated and asked al-Khatib to send a list of prisoner names.

While the opposition is still saying Assad’s departure must be part of any political settlement to end the conflict, it is no longer a precondition for talks.

—Hania Mourtada and Rick Gladstone, The New York Times

McCain opposes filibuster

WASHINGTON — Several Republican senators — notably John McCain — said Monday that they would oppose a filibuster of former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense, moving the nominee much closer toward approval.

“I just do not believe a filibuster is appropriate, and I would oppose such a move,” McCain of Arizona, a key Republican on military issues, told reporters, adding that he would press his colleagues on the matter. Sens. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine also said Monday that they would reject a filibuster, as did Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri last week, pushing the number of votes to force confirmation beyond 60.

McCain and the others cannot stop a single senator from blocking Hagel’s nomination from coming to a clean, up-or-down vote, but his statement indicated what Senate Republican aides said Friday: In the event of a filibuster, Hagel’s advocates almost certainly will have 60 votes. The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to send Hagel’s confirmation to the full Senate on Thursday, likely along party lines.

The 53 Democrats and two independents that lean Democratic are expected to hold together for Hagel. Two other Republicans — Sens. Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Thad Cochran of Mississippi — have come out for the confirmation of Hagel, a former Senate Republican from Nebraska.

But on Monday, it became clear that many Republicans did not have the stomach to filibuster a Cabinet nomination, a move that may be unprecedented. To do so would take egregious circumstances, such as ethical or legal violations, Collins said.

“I’m not inclined to support a filibuster, regardless of how I ultimately come down” on a final vote, she said.

Some Republicans believe Hagel’s most ardent opponents could still use procedural hurdles to block him. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Republicans of Texas, have said they would not take any options off the table. That could slow Hagel’s path to the Pentagon, but with the new opposition to a filibuster, Hagel will almost certainly head the Defense Department.

—Jonathan Weisman, The New York Times

US

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military on Monday reversed a recent decision to blacklist one of Afghanistan’s main airlines, Kam Air, on suspicion of drug smuggling, and it agreed to share details of its accusations with the Afghan government.

The turnaround came after days of Afghan criticism and what some Western officials described as a disagreement between the military and the U.S. Embassy on the prudence of the ban, which would have forbidden any U.S. military contracts with Kam Air. The prohibition came to light in news reports last week, and it was an embarrassment after a positive meeting between President Barack Obama and President Hamid Karzai in Washington in which Karzai stressed the importance of Afghan sovereignty.

According to a statement released late Monday evening by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, the military said that senior officials met with senior Afghan officials at the Foreign Ministry on Saturday, explaining the reasons behind the blacklisting and offering information about the company that led to the ban.

In return, the statement said, the Afghan government agreed to investigate Kam Air and take further action, if needed. Afghan officials could not be reached for comment.

The statement noted deference to the Afghan government’s sovereignty as one reason that it had lifted the ban. The U.S. military does not directly contract with Kam Air, but the lines are somewhat blurry because the military pays for many activities by the Afghan government. Banning Kam Air from military contracts cast a shadow over the company and posed difficulties for Karzai’s travel plans. He frequently charters Kam Air planes for official visits abroad, but he was forced to make other plans for his current visit in Europe, officials said.

—Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times