Iraqi president to make landmark visit to Syria

Talabani aims to discuss security on Iraqi-Syrian border following restoration of diplomatic ties; Bush: Damascus fueling violence in Iraq.

jalal talabani (photo credit: AP)
jalal talabani
(photo credit: AP)
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani will make a landmark trip to Syria on Sunday, the highest-level Iraqi visit to the country in more than 24 years, to sign a series of deals only days after US President George W. Bush accused Damascus of fueling violence in Iraq. Talabani's visit aims to seal ties between the two neighbors after they restored diplomatic relations in early December, cut in 1982 amid ideological disputes between Damascus and the regime of the late Saddam Hussein. Talabani will arrive in Damascus on Sunday and stay for four or five days, Talabani's spokesman Kamaran Qaradaghi told the Associated Press on Friday. State-run Iraqiya television said Talabani will meet Syrian President Bashar Assad and sign security and economic agreements. Qaradaghi would not elaborate on Talabani's talks in Damascus. But the Iraqi president was expected to discuss security on the country's long desert border. The United States and Iraqi officials accuse Damascus of allowing Sunni insurgents to cross the border freely to carry out attacks in Iraq. On Wednesday, Bush lashed out at Syria - and its ally Iran - in an address announcing a new strategy in Iraq, sending 20,000 more US troops in a bid to stem the country's violence. Bush accused Syria and Iran of fueling Iraq's violence and vowed to break supply lines from them to militants in Iraq. He called on US Arab allies to rally behind Iraq's Shi'ite-led government in what was seen in the Arab world as a move to isolate Syria and Iran. Syria says it is doing all it can to patrol its border and blames the Americans and their Iraqi allies for not doing enough to monitor their side of the porous frontier. Talabani's visit to Syria illustrates the balancing act Iraq has taken between its supporter Washington and the United States' top rivals in the region. The restoration of diplomatic ties between Iraq and Syria marked a gradual warming between the two countries after years of hostility while Iraq was ruled by Saddam, followed by Syria's shunning of the new Iraqi leadership that came to power after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Iraq's interior minister and parliament speaker have made recent trips to Syria. Similarly, Iraq's US-backed Shi'ite leaders have close ties with Iran, whose own relations with the United States have been characterized by enmity for nearly 30 years. Syria broke diplomatic ties with Iraq in 1982, accusing it of inciting riots in Syria by the banned Muslim Brotherhood. But ties between the two were already poor. They were ruled by rival branches of the Arab nationalist Baath party, and Damascus sided with Iran in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Talabani spent considerable length of time in exile in Syria during Saddam's 23 years in power and has maintained good relations with Assad, like he did with his father, the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad. However, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - who holds more power in Iraq than the largely symbolic office of president - has been colder to Damascus, insisting that Iraq's neighbors should stop medding in Iraqi affairs or helping its foes.