Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Damascus Agrees to Help Monitor Iraqi Border By Jay Solomon and Julien Barnes-Dacey

The Obama administration and Damascus tentatively agreed to establish a tripartite committee, with Baghdad, to better monitor the Syrian-Iraqi border as the Pentagon draws down American troops from Iraq in coming months, said senior U.S. officials.

The proposed three-way border-control assessments could boost Iraqi security and patch one of the region's most volatile fault lines. The initiative was made by a team of U.S. Central Command officers and their Syrian counterparts last week in Damascus.

The pact awaits the green light from Baghdad, which expressed frustration at being excluded from the U.S.-Syrian talks, saying they violated Iraqi sovereignty on security matters.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Tuesday. A statement issued late in the day by the Iraqi prime minister's office in Baghdad said only that the two sides "discussed the expansion of the Iraqi and Syrian cooperation" in border control.

Syria's prime minister, Naji Otari, far left, and his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki, second from left, review an honor guard at Mr. Maliki's arrival in Damascus on Tuesday. The two countries are working with the U.S. to improve monitoring of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

"Both governments are working seriously and practically to deal with all the issues," added Alaa al-Jawadi, the Iraqi ambassador in Damascus. "The Syrians have been positive with us."

A U.S. official briefed on the Centcom mission said that "the Syrians agree that a tripartite approach is the appropriate approach," adding "we don't have a response back from Maliki."

The border-security initiative provides for the assessment of border checkpoints, dealing with technical issues such as screenings and procedures.

The Pentagon regularly accused Syria of facilitating the flow of foreign fighters and al Qaeda militants into Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In June, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said there had been a significant decrease in the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria. But U.S. officials also say there are issues to resolve. "We're still a little bit concerned with Syria's role in this," Gen. Odierno told reporters in Baghdad on Monday. "I think our bilateral discussions with them are important."

Syria says it has detained more than 1,700 militants, blocked potential combatants from passing through the country en route to Iraq and imposed stricter border policing. Syria also appears to have cracked down on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime who fled to Damascus after the Iraqi invasion.

"The Baathists have been coming under a lot of pressure in the last few months," said one senior Western diplomat. "Some have been kicked out, some have been told to shut up."

Syria's moves seem to be a response to President Barack Obama's increasingly active outreach efforts. The administration has announced the return of a U.S ambassador to Damascus and recently eased U.S. sanctions in an apparent bid to draw Syria away from its alliance with Iran.

Senior Syrian officials were unavailable to comment. But members of Mr. Assad's government have stressed their desire for improved security cooperation with Washington.

"Now with a new administration, when we have assurances that the Unites States will withdraw from Iraq by 2011, then we do believe that full cooperation between Syria and the United States in different fields, not only security issues, will definitely be welcomed," said Fayssal Mekdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, in a recent interview.

Mr. Maliki's visit, announced suddenly after the Central Command delegation visit to Damascus last week, also may have had domestic political motivations. Iraqi parliamentary elections are set for January and Mr. Maliki has positioned himself as a strong nationalist, promoting Iraqi sovereignty. Nationalist rhetoric is running high, and Iraqi officials appeared miffed about being excluded from the Damascus discussions about their country's security.

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