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Senior Clinton deputy for Syria retiring: U.S. official

NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's top deputies for Syria plans to retire, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday, although he played down any impact on policy.

Frederic Hof, who along with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has been the main anchor of the State Department team handling the Syria crisis, has informed Clinton he intends to step down, the official said.

"He is going to be retiring," the official told reporters in New York, where Clinton is attending this week's meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. Syria is among the top issues under discussion.

"There comes a time when it really is important for us to reconnect with our families and spend time with them, and that's the reason he has decided to step down," the official said.

"The secretary is extremely grateful for his leadership and all the work he has done on a variety of issues."

Hof, a Middle East expert and special adviser to Clinton on Syria, has worked to encourage the country's fractured opposition to find greater cohesion and present a viable alternative to President Bashar al-Assad government.

The official said Hof's departure would not affect U.S. planning for an eventual political transition in Syria, where Assad's government has waged an 18-month campaign to crush an armed uprising that has raised fears of wider instability throughout the Middle East.

Clinton has held a number of discussions on Syria at this week's U.N. meeting, although the international community remains deeply divided over how to respond to the crisis.

With Russia and China blocking U.S.-led moves at the U.N. Security Council to impose punitive measures on the Assad government for failing to implement peace proposals, Washington and its allies are looking at other moves. To date these have been limited to non-lethal assistance for Syria's opposition.

Clinton is expected to chair a meeting of the informal "Friends of Syria" group on Friday and the U.S. official said that Iraq - whose Shi'ite-led government has grown closer to neighboring Iran, a key Assad ally - would attend the meeting for the first time.

In a meeting on Tuesday with Iraqi Vice President Khodhair al-Khozaei, Clinton again urged Baghdad to take steps to stop Iranian aircraft suspected of carrying weapons to Syria from crossing Iraqi airspace, the official said.

(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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