The delegation of visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and their Syrian counterparts signed an agreement Tuesday to bolster security along the two countries' porous 466-mile border, which US military officials say is the crossing point for most of the foreign fighters in Iraq.
"This agreement is very important because it will mark a permanent and cooperative effort to secure our border," Mr. Maliki said Wednesday morning in Damascus.
The pact marks the first formalized security deal between the two countries, which have shared long-standing suspicions of each other since the rule of Saddam Hussein. It also comes at a time when both Baghdad and Washington are looking for help across the Middle East to ease the relentless violence in Iraq. Last month, Iran agreed to join a security subcommittee with their US and Iraqi counterparts.
Frustration in Washington with the slow pace of progress in Iraq – both in terms of politics and security – has also put Maliki in the sights of a growing number of American politicians.
On Monday, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan called for his resignation, while President Bush has also voiced frustration at his leadership.
Maliki said Tuesday in Damascus that "no one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people."
While Mr. Bush said Tuesday that the Iraqi government has "got to do more," his spokesman said Wednesday that he did not intend those comments to be taken as a signal that the White House was distancing itself from the Iraqi prime minister.
But Thabet Salem, a Syrian political analyst, says the message to Maliki is clear. "I think Maliki now knows that his days are numbered as prime minister because he's no longer valid in the eyes of the Americans ... He now feels emboldened to say what is on his mind."
Mr. Salem doubted that the new security pact would have any visible impact on stability in Iraq because Maliki's hold on power remains so weak. "There's no consensus across Iraq, so such an agreement won't solve the country's major political fights," he says. "I just don't see an end to Iraq's problems if there's not a national unity government in place, where all the country's groups are represented."
Details of the pact were not spelled out on Wednesday, but according to a member of the Iraqi delegation, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not allowed to publicly discuss the issue, both sides intend to beef up security and information sharing at border checkpoints and create a joint security committee of Syrian and Iraqi officers who will coordinate broader security issues.
US and Iraqi officials have long contended that the Syrian government has been complicitous in the funneling of Islamic militants across the border who carry out sensational suicide attacks in Iraq. But the Syrians flatly reject these accusations and say that the border is too long to adequately manage.
"These checkpoints will help us share information about our border, so we can better protect both Iraqis and Syrians," the Iraqi official said.
Analysts say the timing of the agreement comes at a moment of increasing concern in Syria over the roughly 1.5 million Iraqis taking refuge here. "The security issue in Iraq has now become a regional matter, and Syria is growing more and more concerned," says Ziad Haider, bureau chief of As-Safir, a leftist Lebanese daily.
An estimated 10,000 Iraqis are entering Syria every week. As a result, real estate and food prices are being driven up while the country is experiencing major power blackouts because electricity output is failing to keep pace with demand.
"This agreement is a symbol to the Iraqis that Syria is willing to cooperate over these issues," Mr. Haider added.
Salem said the security pact was a quid pro quo, in which Syria agreed to help on border issues in exchange for the rehabilitation of an oil pipeline between Kirkuk, Iraq, and Banyas, a Syrian city on the eastern coast. The pipeline, which was destroyed by the US military in 2003, had been generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue for Syria.
"This is in the interest of both sides," said Salem. "Iraqis will have access to the Mediterranean and the Syrians will potentially earn billions of dollars in revenue by having this pipeline working again."
During the three-day visit, Maliki is rumored to have asked President Bashar al-Assad to hand over elements of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party, who are believed to be hiding in Syria. Syria apparently denied the request and is said to be urging the Maliki government to scrap the de-Baathification clause in the Iraqi Constitution.
Maliki, who was on his first visit to Syria as prime minister, spent years here as a political refugee during the Hussein years.