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    US General Calls on Syria and Iran to Stop Destabilizing Iraq

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    Al Pessin

    The general who commands all U.S. military operations in the Middle East has accused Iran and Syria of continuing to contribute to the problems in Iraq by facilitating the insurgency and meddling in Iraqi politics.

    In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General John Abizaid said Iran and Syria have both been "unhelpful" in Iraq, contributing to the country's instability.

    General Abizaid said Syria allowed foreign insurgents to cross from its territory into Iraq from the beginning of the conflict. And he said although he believes Syria has been trying to do better, he is not convinced that the Syrian government is prepared to completely close the border to insurgents.

    "They have not yet in our view done enough to stop that level of infiltration," said General Abizaid. "Although it's clear they are trying to do something, it remains to be seen how much they will do."

    General Abizaid said Syria has improved its border posts and patrols, and works sometimes with Iraqi and foreign forces on the Iraqi side of the border. But he said he cannot report that the level of infiltration has decreased, and he characterized Syria as still "very unhelpful" in the effort to restore stability to Iraq.

    The general also said Syria has allowed its territory to be used as a base by former Iraqi regime members who are financing and organizing part of the insurgency. He said he is not convinced Syria is ready to stop doing that, even though it handed over a half-brother of Saddam Hussein to Iraqi authorities in recent days.

    General Abizaid also criticized Iran for trying to maximize its political influence in Iraq. But the general, who is an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, said he does not expect Iraq's newly elected Shiite Muslim leadership to try to institute an Iran-style religious government, and he says that is not what the majority of the Iraqi people want.

    "The most important message for the Iranians is that Iraq is a free and sovereign nation that will develop its own future," he added. "I think it's inevitable that Iran and Iraq will have a closer relationship certainly than they did back in the days of Saddam. But, on the other hand, I believe Iraq will be drawn more into the orbit of its Arab neighbors than Iran."

    The U.S. commander in the Middle East said Iran continues to conduct what he called "intelligence activities" in Iraq that are a cause of concern, particularly following Iran's support for last year's rebellion led by Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

    General Abizaid also called on other regional nations to help stabilize Iraq. He said Turkey should not be worried about a Kurdish move for independence. He said all Iraqis, including the Kurds, want to keep the country together. And the general called on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the small Gulf States to take steps to control the movement of extremists in order to help end terrorism in Iraq and throughout the region. He said the sooner Iraq is stabilized, the sooner the bulk of U.S. troops will leave the country - something he said the United States and all the region's countries want.

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