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Syrians give Chavez hero’s welcome

He says countries united against U.S. domination

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and Syrian President Bashar Assad speak Wednesday at the Ash-Shaeb presidential palace in Damascus, Syria.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and Syrian President Bashar Assad speak Wednesday at the Ash-Shaeb presidential palace in Damascus, Syria.

Bassem Tellawi, Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez received a hero's welcome in Syria, where he said Wednesday that the two countries will "build a new world" free of U.S. domination and vowed to one day "dig the grave of U.S. imperialism."

Thousands of Syrians waved banners and Venezuelan flags along Chavez's route to a meeting with President Bashar Assad.

His visit was the latest in a series of international stops where he has trumpeted his opposition to Washington's global influence and advanced what he calls a "multi-polar" vision of world affairs. His trips also coincide with Venezuela's push to win a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council, over U.S. opposition.

Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, is consistently among the top five sources of imported oil to the United States. But Chavez has built close ties with Iran, Syria and other Mideast countries while his relations have grown tense with the U.S. and Israel.

Chavez said that he will "build a new world" free of U.S. domination with Syria, which is under U.S. pressure to police its border and stop the flow of arms to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

"No matter how strong the American empire becomes and no matter how much force it uses, it will be defeated," Chavez said. "We and Syria as well as other countries will be an army of tigers, struggling and strong."

Speaking at the airport shortly after Chavez arrived, Assad said the two countries shared a common stand: "rejection of international hegemony," Syria's official news agency said. The remark was an apparent reference to the United States.

Assad expressed support for Venezuela's bid to obtain a rotating Security Council seat, a race in which the U.S. government is instead supporting Guatemala.

Chavez also called for Israeli troops to withdraw from Lebanon and demanded the lifting of an Israeli blockade against Lebanon.

A truce ended the monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah on Aug. 14.

The Venezuelan leader has compared Israel's strikes in Lebanon to the Holocaust, and earlier this month withdrew his country's top diplomat from Israel to protest those attacks as well as Israel's actions toward the Palestinians.

Chavez and Assad spoke for 2 1/2 hours at the presidential palace.

With the two leaders looking on, delegates from the two countries signed 13 political and economic agreements. Chavez also said Venezuela was willing to participate in the construction of a domestic oil refinery that Syria is considering building with a capacity of 200,000 barrels a day.

An audience of students and dignitaries applauded the 10-minute speech after Chavez received an honorary doctorate in international relations.

Asked about Chavez's visit to Syria, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the Venezuelan leader should remind Damascus about its international obligations to prevent Hezbollah from receiving weapons.

"We think what's important for anyone having discussions with the Syrian government to do is to emphasize the need for Syria to meet its international obligations," Casey said.

Chavez shrugged off the U.S. comments.

"I did not come here to offer any advice to my brother," he said, referring to Assad. "We came here to strengthen our will and stick together in opposing imperialism."