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Archive for Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Iraq, Syria to restore relations

November 21, 2006

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— Iraq said Monday that it would restore diplomatic ties with Syria after a break of nearly a quarter-century in an effort to solidify links with a neighbor seen as a conduit for insurgents fueling the violence in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made the announcement after a historic meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who pledged his country's help in quelling the sectarian violence that threatens to propel Iraq into civil war. Al-Maliki pressed Syria to step up efforts to keep Sunni Arab fighters from crossing into Iraq to join the insurgency.

"We refuse to let any regional neighbor countries become a passage or a headquarters for the terrorist organizations that hurt Iraq," he said in a statement after the meeting.

Syria and Iran, another neighbor, have offered to help bring stability to Iraq's fractured government, but the Bush administration has long-standing concerns about Iran's support for Shiite Muslim militias and Syria's failure to stop foreign fighters from joining the Iraqi insurgency.

The administration is under intense pressure to put aside those concerns and engage in talks with the two countries, even though it considers them adversaries. The Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., is expected to recommend in an upcoming report that the United States start such a dialogue.

On Monday, reports surfaced of a possible weekend summit in Tehran involving the Iraqi and Syrian presidents, but U.S. and Iraqi officials quickly denied any high-level three-way meeting would take place.

In Baghdad, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had no intention of attending a meeting with both Iran and Syria. Al-Maliki's close aide Hasan Suneid said Talabani had accepted an invitation from the Iranian government to visit Tehran, but he did not specify when that would take place.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, left, meets with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad, Iraq. Talabani met privately Monday with Moallem. The Iraqi government said diplomatic relations between the two countries - severed nearly a quarter-century ago - were being restored.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, left, meets with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad, Iraq. Talabani met privately Monday with Moallem. The Iraqi government said diplomatic relations between the two countries - severed nearly a quarter-century ago - were being restored.

"Iran has a great wish to hold a peace summit with Syria and Iraq, but still it is just a thought," Suneid said, "and if it happened, we should study it very well."

State Department acting spokesman Tom Casey in Washington said the administration welcomes "discussion and dialogue" among Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus because it wants Iraq to have strong relations with all its neighbors. But he also expressed doubts. "The problem is not what they say, but what they do," Casey said.

He added that "it's up to the Iraqi government to make the decision as to whether this is something useful for them or whether they would attend."

Moallem is the highest-level Syrian official to visit Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. His visit marked a major step toward restoring ties between the two countries, which have been at odds since the 1980s, when Syria backed Iran in its war against Iraq.

But Syria's oversight of its borders has become a major point of contention. Moallem denied Syria has allowed foreign Islamic fighters to infiltrate Iraq but also said sealing the long, porous border is an impossible task.

At a briefing in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman, said so far this year Iraqi security and coalition forces have killed more than 425 foreign fighters in Iraq and captured about 670. Of those detained, he said, more than 20 percent came from Syria.

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