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Iraq: Syria Agrees To Tighten Border Controls

U.S. officials have announced that Syria has agreed to take steps to tighten control over its 600-kilometer border with Iraq. The announcement followed talks in Damascus between U.S., Syrian, and Iraqi officials. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the Syrians must now prove their commitment. The State Department has declined to discuss specific details of the agreement, and Damascus has yet to official comment on the talks. U.S.-Syria relations, never good, hit a new low earlier this year when Washington imposed economic sanctions on Damascus for its alleged support of terrorism and refusal to fight anti-American insurgents crossing the border into Iraq.

PRAGUE, 30 September (RFE/RL) -- The United States says Syria will take steps to prevent insurgents from crossing its border into Iraq.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday described this week's talks in Damascus as "constructive and positive." Boucher said Syria has agreed to work in coordination with Iraqi and U.S. troops to close its border to foreign fighters looking to infiltrate Iraq.

"The Syrians did agree to take specific actions in coordination with Iraqi and multinational forces," Boucher said. "These steps are designed to close Syria's border to individuals seeking to foment violence and destabilize Iraq. It is essential now that these steps be translated into action on the ground and we will measure the Syrian commitment to the stability of Iraq by the concrete steps that it takes."

Boucher said Iraqi and Syrian officials agreed on other areas of cooperation as well. "We do have fairly concrete understandings, particularly between the Iraqi government and the Syrian government, on things like communications, activities, how they can deploy forces, how they can move together to cut off the border traffic," he said.

The specific details of the Damascus agreement remain unclear.

Reuters news agency quoted a source close to the negotiations saying the possibility of forming joint Iraqi-Syrian border patrols was discussed. It is not certain, however, that was agreed during the talks.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday told AFP news agency the Syrian pledge of cooperation is "a positive step." But he added, "What really matters is action, and not just an agreement."
"I think it is to the benefit of Syria to take this issue quite seriously and to show its goodwill to have full control over the borders."

Saad al-Hassani, a political analyst at Baghdad University, told RFE/RL he believes Damascus will implement the agreed measures because the country's leaders are growing uncomfortable with the growing links between Syria and the ongoing violence in Iraq.

"I think it is to the benefit of Syria to take this issue quite seriously and to show its goodwill to have full control over the borders," al-Hassani said. "Mainly because the American forces, for example, checked Haifa Street in the center of Baghdad and from about 63 people who were arrested, 50 of them were Syrians."

Al-Hassani said Damascus does not want to be associated with the continued bloodshed in Iraq -- something that has resulted in U.S. sanctions.

Yesterday's agreement wasn't completely unexpected. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in early September that Syria was demonstrating new readiness to work with U.S.-led forces to stop arms, militants, and money from crossing into Iraq and fueling the insurgency.

Also in September, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a senior U.S. State Department official that Damascus attached "great importance" to helping the Iraqi people restore stability and preserve their national unity.

But Damascus has yet to comment on this week's agreement. Al-Hassani said the silence is a sign that Damascus does not want to lose face by admitting it is giving in to U.S. pressure. A statement now might also be seen as a recognition that Syria was, in fact, involved in the violence in Iraq.

Al-Hassani said securing Iraq's border with Syria will shut down the main entry point for foreign fighters. "I know that the Saudi border with Iraq is the longest one, but after all it consists of a desert that cannot be easily used," he said. "But the Syrian border is a very intricate sort of border because it gives access to the Western part of Iraq where the basis [of resistance] in Fallujah and Ramadi are located. Usually they [infiltrators] can have access to these bases very quickly without passing through the checkpoints of the American or the Iraqi Army."

Al-Hassani said other Iraqi Arab neighbors are doing their best to secure their borders and are not so close to Iraq's trouble spots as Syria.

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".