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U.S. willing to consider alternative U.N. presence in Syria

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Unarmed U.N. observers should not remain in Syria beyond an August 19 deadline, the United States said on Thursday, but Washington is willing to consider an alternative U.N. presence in the country to deal with the deadly 17-month conflict.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, also said she was "open-minded" about replacing Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League mediator in the crisis. U.N. officials have said an announcement on his replacement could come as early as Friday.

"We have to be realistic. It is a very difficult job and Kofi Annan did it admirably and found himself understandably frustrated at the end," Rice said of Annan's six-month bid to bring peace to Syria.

Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said he would step down on August 31 because he was not able to carry out his job with the U.N. Security Council's veto powers hopelessly deadlocked.

While the council united in April to approve the deployment of 300 monitors to observe a failed ceasefire as part of Annan's peace plan, Russia and China have vetoed three other resolutions criticizing and threatening sanctions against Damascus.

The number of observers was halved last month when the Security Council renewed the mission, known as UNSMIS, for 30 days and the emphasis switched from the unarmed observers monitoring a nonexistent truce to some 100 civilian staff pursuing a political solution and monitoring rights abuses.

Rice said there was no point renewing the monitors again because there was no ceasefire for them to observe.

"That portion of U.N. activity is not able to function ... so that will not continue as far as we are concerned," she told reporters. "We would certainly be willing to entertain other conceptions of a U.N. presence.

"There will be a country team, there will be a humanitarian presence, and perhaps there will be recommendations that are more political in nature that we can consider favorably."

The 15-member Security Council is due to discuss the fate of the U.N. mission in Syria on August 16 before its mandate expires three days later.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces have killed more than 15,000 people since a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters began in March 2011, some Western leaders say. Damascus says rebels have killed several thousand of its security forces.

U.N. officials say that Annan's replacement must be someone of similar stature.

Among the names circulating at the United Nations as possible replacements for Annan, several envoys told Reuters, are veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and two Spaniards - former Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Envoys spoke of possible Malaysian and Nordic candidates as well. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari's name has come up, though one diplomat told Reuters the Finn, who was the other candidate when Ban selected Annan, was not among the main candidates.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Doina Chiacu)