French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended on Saturday his decision to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to a summit in Paris but called on Damascus to distance itself from Iran and its nuclear programme.

Sarkozy has invited leaders from all the countries that line the Mediterranean to a summit in Paris on July 13 for the launch of his project for a Mediterranean Union.

But the invitation has unsettled the political opposition, and even left-wing Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said it doesn't make him "especially comfortable".

"We have taken the intitiative to hold a summit of the Mediterranean. As far as I know, Syria is a Mediterranean country," Sarkozy told a joint news conference with U.S. President George W. Bush in Paris.

Last year, Sarkozy halted high-level contacts with Damascus, which Paris blamed for stoking tensions in neighbouring Lebanon.

But relations have thawed since Syria helped reach a deal mediated by Qatar last month which ended the standoff between Lebanon's ruling coalition and an opposition alliance led by Hezbollah -- a group backed by both Damascus and Tehran.

The deal paved the way for the election of army chief Michel Suleiman as president. Sarkozy phoned Assad days later and his office said he would send two top aides to meet Assad soon.

"I told Mr Bashar al-Assad that if Syria lets the presidential process run its course, we will resume contact. We have resumed contact," Sarkozy told reporters.

But he also urged Damascus to keep Tehran at arm's length.

"Syria should distance itself as much as possible from Iran in its quest for a nuclear weapon. As of that moment, the process will continue," Sarkozy said, without specifying what process he was referring to.

Bush agreed Syria should cut ties with Iran.

"My message (to Syria) would be 'stop fooling around with the Iranians and stop harbouring terrorists'," he said.

Syria should also "make it clear to their Iranian allies that the West is serious when we talk about stopping them from learning how to enrich, which would be the first -- a major step for developing a bomb'," he added.

Iran strongly denies that it wants to develop nuclear weapons, and says the atomic technology is for electricity.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Tehran for failing to suspend uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for power plants or, potentially, bombs.

The five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany have drawn up a fresh package of incentives to persuade Iran to abandon enrichment.

But an Iranian government spokesman ruled out any halt shortly after the package was handed over to Tehran on Saturday.

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