Iraqi PM to Visit Syria to Discuss Security
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flies in Damascus on Tuesday to discuss with President Basher Al-Assad promotion of security cooperation and the infiltration of foreign fighters across the border, apparently annoyed that the Obama administration sent a U.S. military delegation last week to discuss the issue with the Syrian officials.
The two-day visit is his second to the Syrian capital - where he lived as a refugee during the Saddam Hussein years - since becoming prime minister in April 2006.
Iraq and Syria, which share borders, have experienced turbulent relations over the years. However, in November 2006, the two countries restored full diplomatic ties.
"It is not the duty of the American delegation to negotiate on behalf of Iraq," Iraq's spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said a few days ago. "It is the Iraqi government that will directly negotiate on security with Syria."
The remarks underscored emerging strains in the relationship between the Iraqis and the Americans as the balance of power shifts with the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. The some 130,000 remaining U.S. troops face new limits on their actions in Iraq under a security pact that took effect on Jan. 1, and the Iraqi government has increasingly been asserting its sovereignty and reaching out to neighboring countries.
The Syrian Cabinet, in a statement on Saturday, said that Al-Maliki's visit, which comes a few months after a trip by Syria's Prime Minister Naji Ottri to Baghdad to head the Syrian side in meeting of the joint higher committee of the two countries, aimed at boosting cooperation between the two countries.
"The visit will strengthen ties in all areas, especially economy, trade and oil. The talks on Tuesday will also focus on the situation in Iraq and reconciliation efforts," the statement said, with no mention of Iraq's security concerns.
Al-Maliki's trip overlaps with a string of bombings in northern Iraq and Baghdad that have killed at least 120 people in the last several days - the worst spate of violence since U.S. troops handed over security in urban areas to Iraqi security forces on June 30.
The attacks have raised fears that insurgent groups are embarking on a sustained attempt to kindle ethnic and sectarian warfare. These include the rift between Arab and Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq and the continued disenfranchisement felt by many Sunni Arabs who remain wary of the Shiite-led central government.
A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman described the series of attacks as "criminal operations ... perpetrated by terrorists" and said Syria calls for Iraqi people "to strive to achieve national reconciliation and bolster Iraq's unity."
Syria rejects accusations that it is meddling in Iraq, suggesting that cutting down al-Qaida and stabilizing Iraq were both in Syria's national interest.
The round of talks between Syrian and US officials in Damascus last week also dealt with prospects for Mideast peacemaking. The U.S. delegation, made up mostly of military officials, included Frederic Hof, an assistant to Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader who is the spearheading U.S. peacemaking efforts in the Mideast.
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