Syria denies a deal in the works to ease U.S. pressure and potential for U.N. sanctions

Syria issued a denial Sunday of a British newspaper report that the United States and Damascus were negotiating a deal to end American pressure in return for a "long list of painful concessions."

The official Syrian Arab News Agency quoted an unidentified foreign ministry official as saying Damascus was ready for "constructive dialogue" but without conditions.

"Syria in not interested in making deals, but it is willing to start an objective and constructive dialogue with the United States to reach joint principles that aim to pave the way for positive relations between the two countries," the news agency report quoted the official as saying.

Also, Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah told reporters Syria did not accept the "logic of deals" because the country's positions are "known for everyone and it defends them through realistic and flexible policy."

The statements sought to rebut a Saturday report in The Times that said the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush's had offered Syria's President Bashar Assad a deal to end his regime's "isolation if Damascus agrees to a long list of painful concessions."

The British daily quoted unidentified American and Arab officials as saying that an offer has been relayed to Assad that could enable him to avoid the looming threat of international sanctions against his country.

According to the Times, the United States has demanded that Syria cooperate in and adhere to demands of the United Nations, which is investigating the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon and elsewhere suspect Syria was involved

The Times also said the U.S. demanded Syria end all meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs, halt the recruiting, funding and training of volunteers for the Iraqi insurgency and end its support for Lebanon's militant Hezbollah and Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Syria has become increasingly isolated after the assassination of Hariri, the furor over whose death lead to international pressure that caused Syria to end its long military occupation of Lebanon.

Since then, Detlev Mehlis, the chief U.N. investigator in the Hariri assassination, appears to have found links between the murder and Syria. His report on the killing is to be released next week. Damascus denies any involvement in Hariri's death.

Meanwhile Sunday, the respected the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat reported that Mehlis had officially demanded that Syria produce an autopsy report on the body of Syria's Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan who allegedly committed suicide in his office Wednesday. Syrian officials had no comment on Al Hayat's report.

There is great skepticism throughout the Arab world about the Syrian government's declaration that Kenaan killed himself.

In his investigation of the Hariri murder, Mehlis had recently questioned Kenaan, who was chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon for 20 years until 2002.

An editorial Sunday in the Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of Assad's ruling Baath Party, said reports of a deal between Syria and the U.S. implied Syria need to accept a deal to be "forgiven for wrongs it is guilty of beginning with support for Palestinian resistance and ending with its alleged interfering into Iraq."

Elias Murad, Al-Baath's editor-in-chief, said news reports of such a U.S.-Syrian deal were designed to keep pressure on Syria after those responsible for the reports "failed to offer any proof of Syrian involvement" in Hariri's assassination, AP reported. V.A.