Assad denies Syria is launch pad for Iraq attacks

Israel believes wave of bombings is hampering US-Syrian reconciliation.

Iraqi foreign ministry bomb 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iraqi foreign ministry bomb 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday dismissed Iraqi accusations that his country has been used as a launching pad for violence in Iraq, calling the allegations "immoral" and politically motivated. Iraq and Syria are entangled in a diplomatic dispute over demands that Damascus extradite two suspects wanted in recent suicide attacks on government ministries in Baghdad that killed about 100 people. The tension led both countries to recall their ambassadors. The dispute was further compounded on Sunday, when Iraqi authorities broadcast a confession from a man who said he received terrorist training in neighboring Syria. The Iraqi government has blamed an alliance of al-Qaida in Iraq and Saddam Hussein loyalists it says are based in Syria for the Aug. 19 bombings and demanded that Damascus hand over the two suspected plotters, raising tensions between the two countries. Assad said his country had asked Iraq to provide evidence about alleged Syrian involvement in the Baghdad bombings, but has so far not received any response from the Iraqi side. "When Syria is accused of killing Iraqis at a time it's hosting around 1.2 million Iraqis ... the least that can be said about this accusation is that it's immoral," Assad said. "When Syria is accused of supporting terrorism while it has been fighting terrorism for decades, this is a political accusation," he added. Addressing a joint press conference in Damascus with visiting Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias, Assad said, "Syria is keen about the Iraqi people, their lives and their interests in as much as it is keen about its own people." He added that Syria is eager to maintain "good relations" with all neighboring countries. In a bid to ease diplomatic tensions between the two neighbors, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu planned to meet leaders in Iraq and Syria later Monday. According to assessments reaching Jerusalem in recent days, a spate of deadly bombs in Iraq this month that killed dozens of people has significantly hampered US-Syrian rapprochement. According to these assessments, the US believes some of those responsible for the wave of attacks, as well as some of the explosives that were used to carry them out, came across the border from Syria, and Washington wants to see Syria take much stronger action to seal its border with Iraq. Since taking office in January, US President Barack Obama has pursued a policy of engagement with Syria, sending a number of top-tier officials there, including US Mideast envoy George Mitchell, and has said that the US would reopen its embassy in Damascus. According to assessments in Jerusalem, the US is unhappy that these moves have not led to a more intense Syrian effort to seal the border with Iraq. The deadly attacks have also severely strained Syrian-Iraqi relations, with Iraq charging that Syria is sheltering suspects connected to some of the bombings. Iraq demanded Damascus hand over the suspects, Damascus demanded proof that they were involved, and the two countries recently recalled their respective ambassadors over the issue. With all this in the background, Syria - according to Israeli sources - has made it clear in recent weeks that it was no longer interested in Turkish mediation in indirect talks with Jerusalem, but now only wanted US mediation. According to assessments in Jerusalem, however, the US was far less likely now to accommodate this Syrian request until it did more to stop the infiltrations into Iraq. The EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana is scheduled to arrive in Israel Monday from Damascus and hold talks with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and opposition head Tzipi Livni. Diplomatic officials said that this would be one of Solana's routine visits, and that it was being given a relatively low profile because most of the current diplomatic "heavy lifting" was taking place between the US and Jerusalem, not Jerusalem and the EU. Solana is scheduled to travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah on Tuesday, and then to Beirut and Cairo. Solana is expected to be replaced in the near future by a new EU "foreign minister," if the Lisbon treaty establishing that post is ratified by the EU. Among those being named as a possible replacement are Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, Jaap de Hoop, the outgoing Dutch NATO secretary-general, and former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten. In a related development, Netanyahu on Sunday briefed the cabinet on his recent visit to London and Berlin, and repeated what he said during that trip. Netanyahu told his ministers that while Israel has moved "forward" since the new government came into power - declared a willingness to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, removed 147 roadblocks, and eased up on living conditions for the Palestinians in the West Bank - the Palestinians have toughened their positions, as demonstrated by the recent Fatah convention in Bethlehem. Netanyahu told the cabinet there was no agreement with the US on a settlement freeze, and that the discussions were continuing. His envoy Yitzhak Molcho and the Defense Ministry's Mike Herzog are scheduled to go to the US later this week to continue talks. Netanyahu told his cabinet that a formula was sought that would bridge two objectives: relaunching the diplomatic process and enabling normal life for Jewish residents of the territories. Netanyahu said that formula was "still not there." He also said he had no news regarding a possible date for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu's diplomatic approach was questioned inside the cabinet by National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) who said that while Netanyahu made clear there would be no stopping construction in east Jerusalem, the same message was not conveyed regarding Judea and Samaria. As a result, Landau said, the Americans intensified their pressure to stop all building beyond the Green Line, leading to a hardening of positions by both the Palestinians and the Arab world. Netanyahu responded that things were not exactly as Landau described, and that the reality was far more layered and "complicated."