Iraq, Syria restore ties after 25 years Correspondents in Baghdad 22nov06
IRAQ and Syria agreed to restore full diplomatic relations yesterday after a break of nearly a quarter of a century, a move Iraq hopes may help stem what it says is Syrian support for militants.
The diplomatic breakthrough came after Iran invited the Iraqi and Syrian presidents to Tehran for a weekend summit with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss ways to jointly curb the violence that has taken Iraq to the verge of civil war. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, making the first visit by a Syrian minister to Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, signed in Baghdad an accord with Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari agreeing US troops should stay in Iraq for now.
Mr Moualem had earlier called for the setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of 140,000 US troops. The document contained wording used by the Iraqi and US governments, saying troops should gradually withdraw once they were not needed.
Syria and Iraq agreed to restore full diplomatic ties, reopening their embassies in Damascus and Baghdad. An agreement in principle was struck some months ago. Ambassadors with full rank would be named and flags raised over embassies shortly.
Saddam Hussein and Syria's late president Hafez al-Assad, leaders of rival wings of the Arab nationalist Baath party, severed ties when Syria sided with Shia, non-Arab Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
US and Iraqi officials have long accused Damascus of doing too little to stem the flow of foreign Islamist fighters and weapons across its long, porous border. Syria says sealing the border is impossible and Iraq must do more to patrol its side.
The US military said yesterday that between 70 and 100 foreign fighters were still crossing the border each month.
After meeting officials, including Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has used harsh language about Syria's alleged role in the insurgency, Mr Moualem pledged co-operation in tackling violence. Syria was prepared to work "hand in hand to achieve the security of brother Iraq".
The White House last night called on Syria to show commitment to "constructive engagement" with the Maliki Government to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.
Amid calls for President George W. Bush to open talks with US adversaries Syria and Iran to help stabilise Iraq, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani accepted the invitation from Mr Ahmadinejad and will fly to the Iranian capital on Saturday.
The Iranian diplomatic gambit appeared designed to upstage expected moves from Washington to include Syria and Iran in a wider regional effort to clamp off violence in Iraq.
Mr Bush's allies have recently urged the US President to open the door to talks with Tehran and Damascus to seek their help in stabilising Iraq. More civilians are believed to have been killed in Iraq in the first 20 days of November than in any other month since April last year.
The Iranian move was also a display of its strengthening role in the Middle East, where it already has established deep influence over Syria and Lebanon.
But the US expressed scepticism that the talks would lead to progress on the ground.
State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said senior Iraqi and Iranian officials had met in the past "and we haven't seen much by way of follow-up on it" AP, AFP, *******