Syria and Iraq restore ties severed in the Hussein era

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iraq | 21-Nov-06 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: International Herald Tribune

An Iraqi showed a palmful of shrapnel in Baghdad on Monday after a mortar attack on a market. Widespread attacks killed 21 people, including a popular comedian, and the bodies of 26 Iraqis who had been kidnapped and tortured were found, the police said.

Iraq re-established formal diplomatic relations with Syria on Tuesday, agreeing to restore an embassy in Baghdad after more than 20 years with no formal avenues of communication.

The step came on the second day of a two-day visit by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, who met with the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al- Maliki, in the international Green Zone here.

As the United States undertakes a broad review of its role in Iraq, the neighboring countries of Iran, Turkey and Syria have stepped forward to try to position themselves in case of a major change in policy, leading to a recent flurry of diplomatic efforts. The countries are also concerned about the possibility of a political collapse if the Iraqi government sinks into paralysis with its two main sects stuck in a deadlock.

A government spokesman said President Jalal Talabani would travel to Iran for meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the weekend. Iran's decision to hold talks may have been timed to underscore its own rising influence over events in the region and the inevitability of an Iranian role in any lasting solution for the instability in Iraq.

Syria cut off relations with Saddam Hussein's government in 1982 after siding with Iran in that country's war with Iraq. The break was complete: Iraqis could not travel to Syria, nor call on the phone.

The countries re-established trade relations in 1997, and Iraqis could visit.

Now tens of thousands of Iraqis seeking to escape the violence that has consumed their country have fled into Syria.

During their meeting on Monday, Maliki used stern words in urging Moallem to take more serious steps in preventing Sunni militants from crossing into Iraq from Syria, the prime minister's office said.

"We want to set a kind of relation with them to protect our people from the violence that was coming from them," said a Shiite politician who had been involved in the talks. Major General William Caldwell 4th, the chief spokesman for the U.S. military command here, said Syrians made up about 20 percent of the 670 foreign fighters in custody in Iraq.

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in February 2005 after the assassination in Beirut of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. But as the Bush administration considers policy alternatives in Iraq, allies like Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain are encouraging it to reopen dialogue with Syria and Iran.

In some ways this dialogue has already started. Moallem met with James Baker 3rd, the former secretary of state who is co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, in a hotel in New York in September and discussed what role Syria could play in helping to stabilize Iraq, said the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.

At a news conference with one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite political leaders, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Moallem emphasized that relations between his country and the United States were still strained.

"I didn't come to Baghdad to satisfy the United States," he said.

"I'm not a mediator for the United States in the region."

Qais Mizher, Ali Adeeb and Hosham Hussein contributed reporting.

7 detained in Sadr City raid

U.S. and Iraqi forces raided Baghdad's Sadr City Shiite stronghold on Tuesday, detaining seven members of a militia, including one who is suspected of having information about an American soldier who was kidnapped last month, The Associated Press reported from Baghdad.

Police Captain Muhammad Ismail said three Iraqis, including a young boy, were killed and 15 wounded during the early morning raid.

Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a 41-year-old reserve soldier from Ann Arbor, Michigan, was visiting his Iraqi wife in Baghdad on Oct. 23 when gunmen handcuffed him and took him.

The U.S. command said the raid "detained an illegal armed group kidnapping and murder cell leader" and added that he was "reported to have firsthand knowledge of the control and movement" of Taayie.

Six other suspected cell members also were detained, the military said.

It was the third such raid in four days by U.S. and Iraqi forces on Sadr City, the headquarters of the Madhi Army, the Shiite militia suspected of having carried out the mass kidnapping at a Ministry of Higher Education office in Baghdad on Nov. 14.

Dozens of suspected Shiite militia gunmen in police uniforms kidnapped scores of people during the raid at the ministry, which is predominantly Sunni Arab.