Maliki blames Syria for attacks, Assad denies claim

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said most foreign terrorists operating in Iraq infiltrate through the Syrian border, a charge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies as tensions between Baghdad and Damascus showed no signs of easing.


AFP - Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Monday that 90 percent of foreign terrorists who infiltrate Iraq did so via Syria, a charge likely to worsen already fractured relations between the neighbouring states.

His comments came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dismissed allegations that his country was sheltering militants suspected of involvement in a devastating bombing in Baghdad as "immoral" and politically motivated.

The competing claims signalled no end in sight to a crisis initially triggered by Iraq's accusation that Syria is being used as a staging post for insurgents to launch deadly attacks across the border.

Maliki reiterated that ties with Damascus would not improve until it handed over the suspects it blames for one of two bloody attacks on government ministries in Baghdad on August 19 that killed 95 people and wounded 600.

"Ninety percent of terrorists from different Arabic nationalities infiltrated Iraq through Syrian territory," Maliki said during a visit by the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, aimed at cooling the row.

Relations between Iraq and Syria deteriorated after Baghdad alleged Damascus was harbouring leaders behind a truck bomb attack on its finance ministry, followed within minutes by a similar attack on the foreign ministry.

"We demand that the Syrian side hand over the main people wanted in this crime," Maliki said, alluding to Baathist suspects Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan, "and others of whom there are Interpol warrants against."

Last week, Iraq recalled its ambassador in Damascus and Syria retaliated within hours by withdrawing its envoy from Baghdad.

Maliki also insisted that Damascus "expel the terrorists, Baathists and Takfiris (extremists) who take Syria as a base to launch criminal activity inside Iraq" and said without that there would be no progress.

As Maliki made his statement, Assad adamantly denied that Syria was to blame.

"Syria is accused of killing Iraqis although it welcomes 1.2 million Iraqis (refugees)," Assad said at a joint news conference in Damascus with visiting Cyprus President Demetris Christofias.

"Such accusations are immoral and political. When accusations are not based on any proof, this means they are illogical in the eyes of the law," Assad added, again urging Iraq to present evidence to support its allegations.

Ahead of his trip to Baghdad and Damascus, Turkey's Davutoglu had spoken of trying "to re-establish an atmosphere of trust between the two sides.

"If there is trust and goodwill between them, it will be easier to overcome a crisis such as this," he said.

Iraq's state-sponsored Al-Sabah newspaper had said Davutoglu would urge Baghdad not to seek help from the United Nations to secure the return of suspects it accuses Syria of harbouring.

But Maliki, who said Iraq has since 2004 presented to Damascus the "names, addresses, information, documents and evidence" about terrorists infiltrating the conflict-hit nation from Syria, insisted this was not possible.

"The Iraqi position is to continue to demand that the UN form an international criminal court to try those who committed brutal crimes targeting our security and stability, which resulted in many innocent people being killed," he said.

Davutoglu also held talks with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari before going to Damascus to meet Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

The official Syrian news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling Davutoglu that "Syria has proved in recent years that it cares about the life of every Iraqi.

"It is not acceptable to make irresponsible accusations against Syria that damage bilateral relations."

Davutoglu said earlier he held a lengthy telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday about his visit to Baghdad and Damascus.

"I believe in all optimism that we will resolve this question in a way that avoids further escalation," SANA quoted Davutoglu as saying after meeting Assad.

On Monday France joined the call for Iraq and Syria to end the row.

"We hope that Syria and Iraq will quickly return their relations to normal and continue building closer ties as they had been doing in recent months," foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier told reporters in Paris.

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