Mon, May 02, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Syria, Iraq restore diplomatic relations after two decades

AP , ISTANBUL, TURKEY

Syria announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Iraq more than two decades after ties were severed, boosting regional hopes for securing borders and signaling a willingness to change its policy toward the violence-torn country.

With Iraq's neighbors concerned that violence and ethnic instability in Iraq could spread throughout the region, they pledged Saturday to cooperate with Iraq's newly elected government on "overall border security."

The neighbors -- which include Syria and Iran, two countries accused by US officials of failing to prevent insurgents from crossing their borders -- also planned an upcoming meeting of their interior ministers to discuss how to better monitor their borders.

The announcements were made during a two-day meeting of the foreign ministers of Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Saudi Arabia's deputy foreign minister also attended the meeting, held at a former Ottoman palace overlooking the Bosporus.

The neighbors stressed the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq, and "pledged to support and cooperate with its newly elected" government, which is dominated by Kurds and majority Shiites at the expense of Sunni Muslims, who made up the elite under Saddam Hussein.

But Syria's decision to re-establish ties after 23 years of severance could be key to easing the insurgency in Iraq and boosting regional security, given Syria's 499km shared border with Iraq and its strong ties with Iraq's Sunni tribes, analysts said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa told delegates in the closed meeting Saturday that legal measures to resume diplomatic ties with Iraq would be taken "at the earliest possible time," Syria's official news agency SANA reported.

Syria is interested in Iraq's stability, unity and security "so that it can play its full role in the Arab and international arenas," he was quoted as saying.

The announcement, signaling a change in Syrian policy toward Iraq, could be "instrumental" in quelling Iraq's insurgency, said Iraq expert Gamal Abdel Gawad.

"Syria may be more able than any other [neighbor] to play an important role in convincing the Sunni Arabs to show some flexibility regarding the political process," Abdel Gawad said by telephone from his base in Cairo. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have less influence on the tribes in Iraq.

At the same time, Syria is at juncture "when it needs to offer a positive gesture to reduce the pressure and to show that there is response to pressure and it needs no more," Abdel Gawad said by telephone from his base in Cairo.

The US has accused Syria of sponsoring terrorism and letting terrorists slip through its borders with Iraq. But Damascus faced mounting pressure from the US, the UN and key Arab nations following the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

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