UN investigator Detlev Mehlis is reported to want to interview six top Syrian security officials - including the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad - over the assassination of al-Hariri in a February bomb blast.

"We told Mehlis that he can come with his team to any place in Syria," Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara told reporters on the sidelines of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe for the Forum for the Future meeting on political and economic reform in Bahrain on Saturday

"We have a suitable location, which is the headquarters of (UN) observers in the Golan Heights," he said, referring to the observer force that maintains an area of separation between Syria and Israel in the mountainous territory.

Protests cited

However, he rejected the notion that such interviews could be held in Lebanon itself, where Mehlis is based, as the officials could be the target of protests.

Detlev Mehlis is based in Lebanon

"We are to avoid this and it is in the interest of all to avoid it... We do not want to see demonstrations ... in Lebanon due to these interviews that Mehlis is to hold.

"Syria will cooperate fully with the international committee headed by Mehlis, and we have no reservations, except for the [preservation] of Syria's sovereignty," he said.
 
Al-Shara also criticised the angry reaction from the United States to a major speech last week by al-Assad, who hit back at foreign pressure about al-Hariri's killing and protested Damascus' innocence in the crime.

"They probably do not realise the depth of the relations between the Syrian and Lebanese people... Such deeply rooted relations cannot be annulled by an official in Syria or Lebanon or from outside these two countries."

Rice critical

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to overcome Arab scepticism on Saturday about Washington's reform agenda in the Middle East and rebuked Syria for violating human rights.

Rice called for an end to arbitrary
detentions in Syria

Rice, who has promoting democracy at the heart of her foreign policy, joined ministers and non-governmental groups at the democracy conference in Bahrain on Saturday.

"We say with humility, not with arrogance, that democracy is worth having, even if it is difficult to achieve," she said.

The top US diplomat pointed a finger at arch-foe Syria and demanded the release of activist Kamal Labwani who was detained in Syria this month on his return from a visit to the United States.

"We continue to support the Syrian people's aspirations for liberty, democracy, and justice under the rule of law; we would like to see an end to arbitrary detentions," said Rice as al-Shara looked on.

US criticised 

Tensions have grown between Washington and Damascus in recent months, with accusations that Syria is allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq and that it is not cooperating with a UN investigation into the assassination of al-Hariri.

The US has been criticised for its
treatment of inmates

Rice's comments about detentions in Syria come as questions have been raised about Washington's detention and treatment of foreign terrorism suspects at a US naval base in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In addition, there have been reports of secret CIA detention centres.

Arab leaders have stressed that the United States should not try to impose its own form of democracy on the Middle East, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said reforms needed to be home-grown.
 
"Successful reform requires long-term efforts springing from the capabilities of the countries of the region and cannot be brought in," he said.

Terrorism

Last year's inaugural forum meeting, which brought together the Group of Eight industrialised nations with Middle East and North African states, pitted US calls for reform against Arab demands to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a first step to tackle terrorism.

Triple blasts hit Amman hotels
last week, killing at least 53 people

Rice said this past week's bombings in Jordan underlined the need for reforms across the Middle East.

"It makes even more urgent our work to have an answer to the ideologies of hatred that produce the kind of violence that we saw in Jordan," she told delegates.

Rice listed democratic changes in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt and Kuwait among others, but she said much more needed to be done in the region.

"We have worked too hard and come too far as partners to rest content with these initial gains. The goals of democracy are not realised with one demonstration or in a single
election," said Rice.

Business investment

The forum announced a $100 million fund to promote business enterprise across the vast region, which stretches from Morocco to Afghanistan and which will see 100 million new job-seekers in the next eight years.

The United States is providing $50 million for the fund, and Egypt and Morocco have put forward $20 million each. The fund is expected to have offices in Morocco and Egypt, organisers said.

It also unveiled a $50 million Foundation for the Future, aimed at promoting democracy and political reform in the Middle East, and announced a conference next month in Jordan to discuss the body's structure.

But host Bahrain, a monarchy which has won US praise and favour for its own political reforms, said several Arab states were still studying the foundation's charter before deciding how far they would sign up to it.