Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Iraqi PM takes to Syria for security talks

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flies to Damascus Tuesday for security talks intended to crack down on the infiltration of foreign fighters across the border.The two-day visit -- Maliki's second to the Syrian capital since becoming prime minister in April 2006 -- comes less than a week after a senior U.S. military delegation visited Damascus to discuss similar issues in high-profile security talks that sparked the ire of the government in Baghdad.

"The prime minister's discussions with Syrian officials will focus mainly on security cooperation between Baghdad and Damascus, and what can Syria propose in this field without the need for a third party," Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Alawi told Al-Bayan newspaper."Baghdad doesn't care for any of these meetings about Iraq without its presence," he added in statements published in the newspaper Sunday. Sharing borders, Iraq and Syria have seen relations seesaw for years.Iraq and the United States have also repeatedly accused Damascus of aiding and abetting terrorism, allowing Islamist elements -- mainly al-Qaida militants -- to sneak through its porous frontiers with Iraq.

But in November 2006 Iraq and Syria mended diplomatic ties, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, suggested two months ago that there had been a "significant decrease" in the flows of foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq's frontiers, mainly from Syria. Still, with the balance of power shifting with the impending pullout of U.S. forces by the end of 2011, Maliki's trip to Syria underscored emerging strains in his relationship with the Obama administration and its decision to send a retinue of military officials to Damascus on Aug. 12 to discuss regional security issues.

Maliki has been credited with improving security in Iraq, working to centralize his power and installing loyalists within senior military ranks. A worrying surge in bombings last week, however, has knocked public confidence in the Iraqi government's capacity to maintain security and dealt Maliki a personal blow ahead of elections set for January. Maliki's trip to Syria comes as more than 100 civilians were killed last week in a string of bombings in northern Iraq and Baghdad. The killings marked the worst spasms of violence since U.S. troops handed over security in urban areas to Iraqi security forces on June 30.

Senior U.S. officials believe the upsurge, including a double suicide bombing near Mosul, aimed to disrupt January's elections, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Lacking in charisma and short on his promises to deliver much-needed schools and hospitals, Maliki has built his campaign strategy on the supposed gains in security for war-ravaged Iraqis. After the recent attacks, he appeared on national television to reassure them, but not everyone seemed convinced, Iraqi pundits reported.

The attacks have raised fears that insurgent groups are trying to whip up a civil war again, kindling ethnic and sectarian warfare. Insurgent groups see Maliki's Shiite-led government as a puppet of Iran and the United States, billing most Iraqis involved in the political process as traitors. Maliki's talks in Syria will also focus on water resources, amid frequent complaints from Baghdad that the flow of the Euphrates River, which runs from Turkey through Syria to Iraq, is insufficient for Iraq's agricultural needs.

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