The crisis between two of the Middle East's most powerful countries deepened Wednesday as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said talks with Syria over suicide truck bomb attacks had failed and the United Nations would appoint a special envoy to investigate the violence.
"After four meetings the government realized that these meetings are pointless and they have not produced any ... tangible results or any movement," said Mr. Zebari, speaking from a Foreign Ministry still being rebuilt after two tons of explosives were detonated outside the building on Aug. 19.
Zebari said Wednesday he had just been informed that several senior officials were being put forward as candidates within the UN to respond to Iraq's request for a formal investigation into the attacks on the Foreign and Finance ministries. Almost 100 people were killed and 800 wounded in the twin attacks – the first to strike at the heart of the Iraqi state.
"These names are being circulated and discussed so I am hopeful, I am optimistic that soon we would have an investigator or an international envoy to look at this," Zebari told reporters in his first press conference since he stood in the ruins of the bombed ministry the day after the attack. UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Wednesday morning that while no decision had been taken on a possible envoy, the secretary-general was "looking into how best to respond to the government's request in consultation with Iraq and other stakeholders."
Investigation would focus on Syria
The request for an investigation into foreign interference in Iraq would also include Iran and other neighbors but the Iraqi government has focused on the suicide truck bombs which Iraq has blamed on Baath Party extremists living in Syria. Forty-three Foreign Ministry employees, many of them young diplomats, were killed and 508 injured, more than 100 of them seriously, in the August attack.
Syria, which is on the US State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, has denied that it was involved in any way in the bombings or that it harbors the suspects Iraq has asked it to extradite. US officials have said that Damascus had curbed the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq over the past two years but has been unwilling to completely crack down on anti-Iraq extremists in an apparent attempt to maintain leverage over Iraq.
"We are asking to extradite two Iraqis whom we believe are responsible for the attacks of Aug. 19. They lived, worked, and operated in Syria and this is a fact," says Zebari, who heads the Iraqi commission investigating the attacks. He said after the press conference that Iraq was "every day uncovering more and more evidence" of Baathist extremist activity in Syria.
"They are unwilling to help or assist in that in any way.... I personally do not believe there will be a quick resolution. I hope there will be – this is my job, my work, to resolve crises not to galvanize crises. But the prospect so far does not look good for instant and immediate resolution."
Debate about role of Baathists
Iraq has not released evidence to back its claims of Syrian complicity, but US military commanders and intelligence officials in Iraq over the past year have pointed to Saddam Hussein loyalists as a top threat in Iraq and have said that Syria has a track record of refusing to hand over those suspects wanted for attacks in Iraq. The extent to which Al Qaeda operatives have formed an alliance with Baath Party extremists loyal to Mr. Hussein has been a subject of debate, but American and Iraqi officials describe it as a marriage of convenience – although the two have differing ideologies, Al Qaeda in Iraq is believed to have supplied the suicide bombers while the Baathist extremists provided the logistics and planning.
Some Iraqi politicians, particularly Sunni leaders, have cast doubt on the largely Shiite Iraqi government's effort to lay the blame on Baathists in Syria, with some saying they believe Al Qaeda in Iraq carried out the attacks on its own.
Zebari said that if the appointment of the special UN envoy did not move forward, Iraq was prepared to take the issue further by forcing a special meeting of the UN Security Council in which all the member states would have to make public statements about Iraq's claims.
Fallout from the Aug. 19 bombings
Iraq and Syria each recalled their ambassador after the bombing. Iraq is one of Syria's biggest export markets and Iraqi officials have not ruled out closing its borders to Syrian products. Such a move could have repercussions on an estimated 1 million Iraqi refugees still living in Syria.
In a tour for a small group of reporters, Zebari showed off floors of the foreign-designed ministry which are being entirely rebuilt by Iraqi engineers and laborers working around the clock. He stopped to greet a ministry worker on crutches who had just come back after being treated for her injuries.
Many of the diplomats and consular employees resumed work at the Foreign Ministry just days after the bombing on the few floors that had not been damaged by the bomb.
"This building was a piece of rubble," Zebari said, pointing to the rebuilt walls and new floors in a building where every piece of glass had been shattered. "But it will take time to be completely fixed."