"The economic situation is a priority for us all to improve its performance and improve the life of our citizens. So is corruption," said al-Assad, presiding over his first Baath Party congress since succeeding his father Hafiz al-Assad in 2000.
   
Al-Assad, 39, called for more successful and firmer mechanisms to fight graft, which critics say has pervaded most levels of Syrian government and the state-dominated economy.

Al-Assad said the party should open up towards other national powers in an apparent reference to a plan to allow the creation of opposition parties. He said the Baath would maintain its leading role.

Aljazeera's correspondent in Syria, Leila al-Shayeb, said al-Assad's instuctions were open-ended, leaving the congress to discuss how to implement policies.

Analysts say no religious or ethnic parties will be legalised under any political loosening, ruling out Kurdish or Islamist groups that have long been banned.

Foreign policy

The president told the 1231 congress members to disregard "any considerations that aim at pushing us in directions that contradict our national interests or infringe on our stability".

Al-Assad said foreign-inspired political changes in the region had created disturbing trends for Arabs.    

Al-Assad (R) said the Baath
would maintain its leading role

"This reality obliges us all to face it with more awareness and responsibility ... by enhancing the values of openness, tolerance and liberalisation in Arab society," he said.
   
"The powers behind these events ... simply aim at turning us into a negative mass that absorbs all that comes its way without the will or the ability to consider rejecting or accepting it."

Syria, forced this year to bow to a UN demand and withdraw its troops from Lebanon, has also been under pressure from the United States and Europe to introduce political and economic reforms, especially since the US-led war on Iraq.

Coalition

The Baath Party rules through the National Progressive Front, a coalition of lesser parties that it heads.

The front has a majority in parliament. Syria has no law on political parties.

When al-Assad announced the congress in March, he said it would provide a great leap for reform, but most Syrians say it will not produce a magic solution to the country's problems.

Ahmed al-Haj Ali, a member of the party, told Aljazeera earlier that the conference was expected to tackle issues such as reforms and would elect new leaders.  
 
The agenda
 
Al-Haj Ali denied that the conference would present new strategies.
    

"The powers behind these events ... simply aim at turning us into a negative mass that absorbs all that comes its way without the will or the ability to consider rejecting or accepting it"

Bashar al-Assad,
Syrian President

"The state of emergency and martial laws will also be discussed," he said. 
 
"The conference seeks to at least practically cancel, if not in text, the state of emergency and martial laws," al-Haj Ali said.
 
He added that the decisions to be taken would be related to the general policies of the state and of the Baath Party. 
 
"These decisions and recommendations, resulting from the conference, will form a strategic base at this stage inside the party, in the state; that is, in political relations among various political parties; in relations between Syria and Arab countries, Syria and world countries, or concerning the economic field which will witness a great renewing," he added.