Syria offers to send peacekeepers to Iraq

The aid comes with conditions that the UN takes over and US sets withdrawal date.

With the United States facing mounting problems in Iraq, an offer of assistance is coming from an unlikely direction - Syria.

A staunch opponent to the US-led invasion of Iraq, Syria now says it is willing to dispatch peacekeeping troops to Iraq on condition that the United Nations takes over Iraq's reconstruction and the US provides a deadline for the withdrawal of American forces.

The gesture is the latest signal that the Syrian regime is seeking to mend its strained relations with the US. The conditional offer is also likely to add further pressure on the administration of President Bush to allow the UN a greater say in Iraq's future.

"Syria would be willing [to send troops] and all Arab countries would be willing, including all Iraq's neighbors," says Bouthaina Shaaban, the spokeswoman at the Syrian Foreign Ministry. "If these two points are addressed, all the Arabs will be willing to help restore security and help in the reconstruction of Iraq."

Today Mr. Bush is due to address the UN General Assembly in New York to request funds and peacekeepers for Iraq and Afghanistan. But he is likely to face a frosty reception, given Washington's insistence on retaining the top postwar role in Iraq and keeping any additional peacekeepers under US military command.

Syria, which has a seat on the UN Security Council, is in agreement with France and Germany that the UN should be the only authority in Iraq. Says Ms. Shaaban: "I think the US is heading in that direction. It will be the only solution for them."

It would be surprising if there were not more than a little schadenfreude in Damascus, given the turn of events in recent months. In the lead-up to the war, Syria used its seat on the UN Security Council to voice strong opposition to Washington's policy on Iraq. Relations soured further midway through the war when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened military action in response to hundreds of volunteer fighters entering Iraq from Syria.

But five months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Syria potentially stands to be one of the biggest winners of the war. Fears that an angry US would seal the border with Iraq have proved unfounded. While trade between Iraq and Syria has yet to reach prewar levels, the future looks promising. Syria recently agreed to supply electricity to Mosul, in northern Iraq, in exchange for Iraqi oil. Rail links between the two countries reopened in July, and trucks carrying goods from Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey cross into Iraq daily.

"I am surprised, frankly, that the border is still open to us," says Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist who runs a Damascus think tank. "It shows that neither side wants to sever all cooperation."

Syria has influence with the Sunni Muslim tribes in Iraq - which are merely an extension of Syria's own tribes - as well as the Kurds in the north and the Shiite Muslims in the south. Senior Syrian officials held talks with a delegation of Iraqi tribal leaders over the weekend in an attempt to help bring stability to Iraq, said Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam.

The prospect of peacekeepers from Syria is not welcomed by some Iraqi leaders.

"We would not accept troops from any neighboring state," says a member of Iraq's Governing Council, citing fears of designs on a weakened Iraq.

Noshirwan Mustafa, deputy to Kurdish party leader Jalal Talabani, says troops from neighboring countries would make the situation more difficult. "Each neighbor has its own agenda here, all of them were against the war, and they all want to see the Americans withdraw having failed."

Samir al-Taqi, a political analyst and former Syrian lawmaker, argues that, contrary to popular belief, the leadership in Damascus is not uncomfortable with the presence of American troops in Iraq.

"Everything that happens in Baghdad will keep Mr. Bush awake at night. We have become de facto partners," he says. "Syria is just waiting for the Americans to come and ask for their help."

But that request for help may still be some way off. Last week, the US Congress debated the Syria Accountability Act which threatens sanctions against Damascus unless it renounces its support for militant anti-Israel groups, abandons its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and withdraws its forces from neighboring Lebanon. During the debate, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton told a congressional subcommittee that Syria is developing a chemical and biological weapons program and hinted that it might be trying to get nuclear weapons.

As with Iraq, Europe and the US have markedly different positions toward Syria. The same day Mr. Bolton was describing Syria as one of the "world's most dangerous regimes," Syria's Foreign Minister and Chris Patten, the European Union External Relations Minister, were negotiating final details of an economic and political-partnership agreement.

Peter Ford contributed from Baghdad.

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