US, Syria make progress in Iraq talks
US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said yesterday during a visit to the Syrian capital Damascus that Syria had made a lot of progress in controlling its border with Iraq, but still needed to do more to stop fighters moving across the frontiers. Syria responded by saying that the US administration had no evidence to support the claims renewed by Armitage over the weekend. "Syria has made some real improvements in recent months on border security. But we all need to do more, particularly on the question of former regime elements participating in activities in Iraq, going back and forth from Syria," Armitage told reporters in Damascus. Armitage, who arrived in Damascus early yesterday for talks with Syrian officials on its alleged role in the Iraqi insurgency and the infiltration of fighters across the Syrian border into Iraq, met with President Bashir al-Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. He was accompanied by Assistant US Secretary of State William Burns.
Armitage said he stressed to the Syrian leadership the "absolute importance" of the Iraqi elections and the need to have full Iraqi participation. "I believe I found here in Syria the same view," he said. Armitage also called on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and warned it against interfering in its parliamentary elections due to be held in May. "We talked about the necessity of full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and the need to have no interference from foreign sides in the parliamentary elections in Lebanon next spring," Armitage said.
Syria's official news agency SANA said Assad discussed with the US delegation "the situation in Iraq and the political process there, including the lections". It said the two sides also discussed the Mideast peace process. A statement issued by the Syrian Foreign Ministry said Syria expressed its "readiness to keep up the cooperation with the Iraqi side on the border security issue". Imad Moustafa, Syria's ambassador to the US who attended the meeting with Assad, described Armitage's visit as "very successful" and said it did not reflect the tension often described in the media.
He told The Associated Press that the US and Iraqi accusations were not based on tangible evidence. "We asked them to stop their statements to the media if they have nothing to support them and we expressed our wish to cooperate with them when they do have any tangible information," Moustafa said. "The Americans want to strengthen cooperation between us. They acknowledged the cooperation already in place and asked us very gently to strengthen this cooperation.
We have no objection to that," he added. US-Syria relations have been strained over US accusations that Syria was meddling in Iraq, as well as Syria's involvement in Lebanon. In May 2004, Washington imposed sanctions on Syria under an act that accuses Damascus of seeking weapons of mass destruction, a charge Syria denies, and hosting Palestinian groups Washington deems terrorist. In September, the UN Security Council passed Resolution1559 introduced by Washington and Paris calling on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and dismantle the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla group. US officials and members of the interim administration in Iraq have claimed that Iraqi insurgents are supported by BaUathists based in Syria. Al-Sharaa denied the charges earlier this week. Meanwhile, Syria has agreed to offer polling sites for Iraqi expatriates in upcoming elections. An agreement was signed yesterday between the Syrian government and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The agreement allows some 250U000 Iraqis who are living in Syria to vote from Damascus between 17 and 23 January.
Polling will take place over three days, from 28 to 30 January. "The program gives Iraqis living in Syria a unique chance to participate in their homeland's first democratic election in living memory," Luis Martinez-Betanzos, who heads the vote program in Syria, said in a statement. He said he was pleased with the level of cooperation from the Syrian government.