Iraq, Syria trade accusations in rift over bombings

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 31, 2009 

BAGHDAD — A diplomatic standoff between Iraq and neighboring Syria escalated Monday, with Baghdad demanding the extradition of suspects in a deadly bombing and Damascus insisting that there's no evidence of Syrian involvement.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that Syria's failure to hand over two suspected insurgents would be considered "unfriendly." He spoke at a news conference in Baghdad alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who arrived Monday to help Iraq and Syria ease the diplomatic strain since coordinated truck bombings on Aug. 19 at Iraq's finance and foreign ministries killed nearly 100 people and wounded hundreds.

Iraq has accused Syria of harboring the suicide attacks' plotters. Iraqi authorities released purported confessions from two suspects — one Iraqi and one Saudi — who said that the bombings were planned in Syria. Both countries withdrew their envoys in the tense aftermath, and Iraq has hinted at hauling the matter before an international court.

"Our accusation is directed toward the people in the Syrian territories who are involved in the explosions and we consider the Syrian stance of hosting them as unfriendly," Zebari said.

For years, U.S. and Iraqi forces officials have accused Syria of looking the other way as militant Sunni Muslim insurgents from across the Arab world were smuggled into Iraq across the Syrian border.

Iraq's Shiite-led government claims that the recent bombings were the work of an alliance between Islamist militants and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party in Syria. Other than the televised confessions, the government hasn't disclosed evidence to support that claim.

Al Qaida in Iraq's umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack last week, according to online message boards used by the militants. The U.S. military also says the sophisticated operation bears the hallmarks of al Qaida in Iraq.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad dismissed Iraq's accusations as politically motivated, a view shared by many critics of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. With national elections scheduled for January, the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is keen to show voters it's not afraid to take tough stances against terrorism and the alleged meddling of its Arab neighbors.

"When Syria is accused of killing Iraqis at a time it's hosting around 1.2 million Iraqis . . . the least that can be said about this accusations is that it's immoral," Assad told journalists in Damascus. Syria is still home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who were displaced in the country's sectarian bloodshed.

Iraqi politicians are fed up that militants continue to cross the Syrian border into Iraq, but many are just as concerned with the smuggling of arms across the border with Iran. In recent weeks, U.S. and Iraqi forces have uncovered large stockpiles of weapons believed to have come from Iran, according to authorities and news accounts. The politicians note that for all of Maliki's complaints about Saudi Arabia and Syria, he barely mentions Iran's alleged role in violence in Iraq.

"The demand for an international court for these countries and agencies that support terror is a legal demand for the Iraqi government, but we should not look with one eye," said Mithal al Alusi, an independent Sunni politician on the foreign relations committee of Iraq's parliament. "If we want to open this matter to gain Iraqi credibility, we shouldn't attack one side and ignore the other."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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