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Iraq restores ties with Syria after 26-year break

by Sabah JergesTue Nov 21, 12:05 PM ET

Iraq has announced it was restoring full diplomatic relations with Syria after a 26-year break and hailed a pledge from its western neighbour to do more to cooperate on security.

"We have signed a little while ago an agreement to restore complete diplomatic relations with Syria," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told a joint news conference with visiting Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem Tuesday morning.

"(The) Iraqi flag will be raised in Syria and the Syrian flag will be hoisted in Baghdad," Zebari said.

He said agreement had also been reached on closer security cooperation following repeated US accusations that Syria was turning a blind eye to Sunni Arab insurgents smuggling men and materiel across the border.

"There was an agreement to have meetings between security officials from both countries and we also discussed developing commercial relations," Zebari said.

The Syrian minister acknowledged that his talks in Baghdad had been "frank after they (relations) were disturbed all these years."

Saddam Hussein's regime cut ties with Syria in 1980 in protest at its support for Iran after an eight-year war between the two neighbours broke out that year.

Muallem said he hoped the restoration of ties would end US criticism of Syria over its role in Iraq.

"I do not want to go back to the former accusations. We seek future cooperation in all fields," said the minister, the first Syrian official to visit Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003.

The White House swiftly called on Syria to show it was genuinely committed to "constructive engagement" through action on the ground to stop the flow of militants into Iraq.

"We've always encouraged Iraq's neighbours to take a role in supporting and assisting the unity government in Iraq," Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House's national security council, told AFP.

"One of the first steps Syria could take is to strengthen its border with Iraq and stop the flow of foreign fighters into that country."

The rapprochement between Iraq and Syria comes amid mounting calls for Washington to engage Syria and regional ally Iran in efforts to stabilise Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has urged President George W. Bush to rethink US coldshouldering of the two governments and engagement is expected to be among the key options to be proposed by the Iraq Study Group, a US bipartisan panel that is to present its findings early next month.

Blair Tuesday welcomed Muallem's Baghdad visit.

"The very thing that we've been seeking is to ensure that Syria becomes of help to Iraq in its process of progress and overcoming its challenges and difficulties at the moment, rather than a hindrance to that."

Outgoing UN chief Kofi Annan said the United States was "in a way trapped in Iraq, trapped in the sense that it cannot stay and it cannot leave."

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is to travel to Iran Saturday for talks with his hardline counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a spokesman for the Iranian president said efforts had been to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to join the meeting "to try to resolve the existing misunderstandings".

Zebari denied there were plans for a three-way summit in Tehran, saying that instead Talabani had been invited to Damascus.

"There is no summit between Iraq, Syria and Iran," he said. "The president has an invitation to meet and hold (an) Iraqi-Iranian summit."

Zebari said that the Iraqi government's overtures to two countries long rejected by the United States should convince any remaining doubters of its independence.

"This visit has opened the way for us and has sent positive messages to the international, regional and Arab countries that we are the masters of our decisions and national interests," he said.

Analysts said the rapprochement between Iraq and Syria was likely to add grist to the mill of those pushing for the US administration to engage.

There were elements of Muallem's visit "that will both energize and give more weight to the review here and the argument to engage the Syrians," said Scott Lasensky of the US Institute for Peace, a think tank that has been advising the Iraq Study Group.

"There was US pressure as well as from parties within the Iraqi government who also didn't wanted improved relations," said Elias Murad, editor-in-chief of the Syrian ruling party's Al-Baath daily, suggesting that the restoration of ties had to overcome hurdles from Washington and Baghdad itself.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made clear that he expected to see more action from Syria on security, regardless of the state of its relations with the United States.

"If Syria or any other state has differences with the United States, it's their own business," Maliki told a joint news conference with Muallem Monday.

"It should settle these differences, but not at our cost," he said.

Arab League chief Amr Mussa hailed the restoration of ties, saying a League summit in Khartoum earlier this year had urged Arab governments to set aside any misgivings about the US-led invasion and establish ties with Baghdad.

In rebel attacks at least 20 people were killed in Iraq Tuesday.

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