- Bashar al-Assad - Iraq - Nuri al-Maliki - Syria
AFP - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for security talks in Damascus on Tuesday, after the top US commander in Iraq said Syria's role in allowing fighters across the border remained a concern.
Maliki travelled to Syria just days after a senior US military delegation was in Damascus to discuss regional security issues, reportedly including Iraq, a meeting that irked some in Baghdad.
The two leaders discussed strengthening cooperation, notably over border security, and Maliki "confirmed that having a strong relationship with Syria was in the mutual interests of both peoples," his office said.
"The two sides discussed expanding cooperation over borders, oil, gas, water, transport, and working to increase trade between the two countries by establishing free-trade zones," it said.
The two leaders also established a "high-level strategic cooperation council" that would be led by the countries' prime ministers, and would discuss a wide variety of issues including economic and military cooperation, as well as culture and education.
Maliki invited Syrian companies to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq, which has been wracked by years of violence and sanctions, and also met Iraqis living in Syria.
The statement said Assad offered his "support to Iraq, for security, stability and sustaining the unity of the country and its people."
That was confirmed by Syrian state news agency Sana, which said the president had reaffirmed "Syria's support for the consolidation of security and stability in Iraq and the unity of that country."
Maliki was accompanied by Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani and Water Minister Latif Rashid as well as top security officials.
On Monday, General Ray Odierno said that while the "flow of foreign fighters in Iraq has decreased significantly... we're still a little bit concerned with Syria's role in this."
In recent months, Iraqi officials had hailed an improvement in security at the Syrian border.
Ahead of a US troop pullback from Iraqi towns and cities at the end of June, interior ministry operations director Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf said it was now well secured and Iraqi troops should soon be able to take over patrols.
Iraq responded negatively to reports that the US military delegation which visited Syria last Monday discussed Iraqi security.
"Baghdad doesn't care for any of these meetings about Iraq without its presence," Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Alawi was quoted as saying on Sunday.
Maliki's talks in Syria also addressed water resources, amid frequent complaints from Baghdad that the flow on the Euphrates River, which runs from Turkey through Syria to Iraq, is insufficient for Iraq's agricultural needs.
The Iraqi water minister accused Turkey last week of breaking a promise to increase the flow of water
In July, Baghdad called for talks with Ankara and Damascus over the issue.
It was not immediately confirmed whether the talks focused on the implementation of an agreement to reopen a closed oil pipeline from Iraq to Syria's Mediterranean coast.
In talks with Maliki in Baghdad in April, Otri agreed a plan to repair the pipeline.
An initial agreement to reopen the pipeline, which runs from Iraq's northern oilfields to the Syrian port of Baniyas, had been reached in August 2007 but both governments said technical problems had prevented it being carried out.
Initially shut off in 1982, the pipeline reopened in 2000 but was shut off again in 2003 following the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Before March 2003, Syria received around 200,000 barrels of oil a day from Iraq at preferential prices, enabling it to profit from sales on the international market.