News / Middle East

Iraqi Prime Minister Visits Syria to Mend Year-old Rift

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Damascus, 13 Oct 2010
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Damascus, 13 Oct 2010

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is visiting Damascus for the first time in more than a year.

Outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his first visit to the Syrian capital in more than a year.  Observers say the meeting was intended to end a lengthy rift that began after Mr. Maliki accused Damascus of responsibility for several devastating car bombs last year in Baghdad.

President Assad reportedly told Mr. Maliki that he was pleased that relations between both countries were on the mend.  He added that the "rapid formation of [a new] Iraqi government" would reinforce stronger ties.

Prime Minister Maliki was quoted as saying that relations between Iraq and Syria are "special" and that neither country can "get by without the other."   Mr. Maliki spent several years in exile in Damascus, while an opponent of former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Maliki is thought to be seeking Syria's support to remain in office, after months of political wrangling following inconclusive parliamentary elections last March.  Former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, his chief rival for the job, visited Syria two weeks ago.

A political analyst in Baghdad, Salem Mashkour, says the invitation for Mr. Maliki to visit Damascus followed the intervention of Iranian leaders in his favor.

"The Prime Minister of Syria [Naji Otri] invited Maliki to visit Damascus and this came after more than one year of tension between Maliki personally and the Syrian leaders," he said. "That was after an agreement between Syria and Iran about Maliki.  Iranian leaders convinced Syrian leaders, especially [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad, to accept al Maliki and Bashar Assad agreed to start a new page with [him]."

Syria has long had close ties to Iraq's Sunni-opposition movement and Damascus has repeatedly insisted that it was trying to "remain equidistant" between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite political parties.  

Iraq expert Peter Harling of the Crisis Group in Damascus says Syria appears to be bending in favor of Mr. Maliki now that the United States and Iran appear to be supporting him for a new term.

"I think the Syrians realize that Maliki now has support from Iran obviously, but also from the U.S., for a lot of different reasons," he said. "He is seen by both as a solution of continuity."

"I think the Iranians see current dynamics in Iraq as pointing in the right direction from their own perspective, and as you know, the U.S. wants out and Maliki is the least problematic option, perhaps.  So, it becomes more difficult for the Syrians to oppose him with as much vigor as in the past," he added.

Harling argues that Mr. Maliki brought several economic incentives with him to Damascus, in a bid to garner Syria's support for his remaining in office.  Among those incentives are several projects that were frozen last year, including an oil pipeline from Iraq to the Mediterranean, via Syria, and a pact to refine some Iraqi crude oil in Syria.

Prime Minister Maliki recently indicated that he has gained the support of Iraq's key Shi'ite political formations, giving him the votes in parliament to form a new government.  Harling believes that the prime minister wants Damascus to help convince rival Iyad Allawi to "join the government under acceptable terms."

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