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Iraq-Syria dispute jeopardizes progress on stability, trade

Iraq's accusation that Syria was behind the massive Baghdad bombing a month ago Saturday has pushed relations to a new low.

By Julien Barnes-DaceyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2009

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, left, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, second from left, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, second from right, and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, right, are seen during their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday.

Ibrahim Usta/AP



A month after massive bombs rocked two Iraqi ministries in Baghdad, Iraq's relations with Syria have plunged from a historic high to a new low over accusations that Damascus facilitated the attacks. At stake are Iraq's stability, increased trade for Syria, and cooperation on water issues amid sustained drought.

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On Thursday, high-level delegations from both countries met in Turkey, which is seeking to mediate between the two neighbors.

The heart of the dispute, say Western officials in both capitals, is not simply responsibility for the bombings, which were the capital's deadliest in 18 months, but broader Iraqi concern that Syria is harboring ex-Baathists and allowing foreign militant networks to operate under its nose.

A day before the Aug. 19 explosions, Mr. Maliki made a rare state visit to Damascus, during which he reportedly asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to turn over 179 people allegedly involved in Iraqi violence. Mr. Assad refused.

Maliki is now using the bombings to press his case – and, senior Iraqi politicians say, divert attention from his government's own failure to prevent the attacks. Domestic security is a key element of his campaign to win reelection in next January's parliamentary election.

Damascus denies any responsibility, while US and even senior Iraqi politicians are skeptical that Maliki has evidence for his claims. Syrian officials and Mideast analysts say, moreover, that Syria has moved to stem the tide of militants crossing its border into Iraq.

"Syria has made notable efforts to secure its borders, mainly for its own reasons, but also because it is keen to improve ties with Iraq and the US," says Peter Harling, the director for Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon with the International Crisis Group. "It is highly unlikely it would sign off on such a spectacular attack on Maliki's credibility, literally hours after his state visit to Damascus topped a long series of promising, reciprocal gestures."

Officials in Damascus say that Iraqi evidence presented to them, which was limited to a taped confession from one of the bombers and obscure satellite photographs of sites in Syria where militants allegedly receive training, is wholly inconclusive. President Assad has said that if presented with convincing evidence, he will hand suspects over.

American officials have said the explosions look more like Iraqi homegrown attacks bearing the hallmark of Al Qaeda. But the Iraqi government is standing firm in its accusations.

On Monday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the evidence against Damascus "includes confessions, communications, financing, and logistic support by people living in Syria and who have relations with Al Qaeda."

Political, economic prosperity at stake