Talabani on landmark visit to Syria

news54.jpgDAMASCUS (AP) — Syria’s president promised to do what he can to ease tensions in neighbouring Iraq on Sunday during a landmark visit here by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, just days after the US president accused Syria of backing Iraq’s insurgency.

A veteran Kurdish politician who spent years in exile living in Syria, Talabani is the first Iraqi president to visit Damascus in nearly three decades — and his trip is part of an attempt to warm relations between the longtime rivals.

A prominent Iraqi lawmaker with close ties to Talabani said the president’s visit to Syria was not a snub to the US president. The six-day trip had been planned for nearly a year and its date was finalised about two weeks ago, lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, also a Kurd, said from Baghdad.

But he acknowledged that the timing “may seem a little tricky” after Bush’s speech and said Iraq needed to follow its own foreign policy goals independently from America’s agenda.

“Our interests differ from those of the United States,” he said. “The enmity between the United States and Syria and Iran doesn’t benefit the situation in Iraq.” The United States and Iraqi officials accuse Damascus of providing refuge for Sunni insurgents and allowing them to cross the border freely into Iraq to fight American and Iraqi troops. Syria denies the charge, countering that the Iraqis and their US backers are not doing enough to guard their side of the border.

Talabani went straight from the Damascus airport to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s hilltop presidential palace where the talks were held. He was expected to take up the thorny border issue with his host.

Syria’s official news agency SANA said the talks between Assad and Talabani focused on “bilateral relations” and that both sides expressed a keen desire to strengthen relations between their two countries.

Assad expressed Syria’s readiness to help achieve national reconciliation as well as stability in Iraq and stressed his support for the political process under way in the neighbouring country, the state news agency said.

The leaders agreed to continue consultations and coordination on all issues of mutual interest, SANA said.

In an address Wednesday outlining his new strategy for Iraq, Bush lashed out at Syria and its ally Iran, accusing them of supporting armed groups in Iraq. Bush vowed military action to disrupt insurgency supply lines coming into Iraq from Syria and Iran.

Iraq’s government has been relatively shy in its support of the new Bush plan, though Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his government does back the new strategy.

“The additional [US] troops are needed indeed, because Baghdad has become the battleground for all the terrorists and insurgents,” Zebari told CNN on Sunday.

Analysts say Syria could be tempted to make an overture, if only partial, to maintain positive momentum in improving relations with Iraq.

The two neighbours restored diplomatic relations late last year, more than two decades after they were cut over ideological disputes, Syria’s support of Iran in its 1980-88 war with Iraq and charges that Baghdad supported Syrian gunmen.

Talabani has been warmer towards Syria than Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who fears that giving the country’s neighbours a role in ending the violence would allow them to meddle in Iraqi affairs.

But Vali Nasr, a US-based expert on Middle Eastern affairs and a fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations, said Iraq needs to independently engage its neighbours, even if it disagrees with some of them.

“The Iraqis must have their own plan for regional engagement and show that not everything is managed in Washington,” he said.

Syria is a prime candidate for engagement in any regional outreach by Iraq.

Its close relations with Iran are a vital asset given Tehran’s vast influence with Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims. It also has good relations with the once-dominant Sunni Arabs and plays host to 800,000 or more Iraqi refugees, including stalwarts of Saddam’s Baath Party known to be active in the Iraqi insurgency.

Muqtada Sadr, the anti-US Shiite cleric whose Mehdi Army is blamed for much of Iraq’s sectarian violence, was given a warm welcome by Assad when he visited Syria last year. Sadr is one of Maliki’s main political backers.

“Syria can play a constructive role in Iraq, but not necessarily a decisive one,” said Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based Middle East expert. “What Syria can and can not do will not decide the future of Iraq, but it can help.” Engaging Syria in the search for peace in Iraq could also offer Assad’s government an opportunity to ease its relative isolation in the region over its role in Lebanon in support of opposition groups seeking to topple Beirut’s US-backed government.

Damascus’ relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan also have been cool, partly over what they see as Syria’s role in promoting Iranian interests in the Arab world.

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