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Iraq: Syrian Minister In Baghdad As U.S. Mulls Options On Iraq

Al-Muallim (left) being greeted by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Baghdad on November 19 (epa) PRAGUE, November 20, 2006 -- Three years ago, when the U.S.-led international coalition toppled Saddam Hussein, optimism in Washington was high.

Part of the stated goal was to rebuild Iraq as a democracy that could inspire change elsewhere in the region. And that included hopes of democratic governments one day replacing the regimes in Syria and Iran.

Given that background, it is no wonder that the visit to Iraq this week by Syria’s top diplomat is getting wide attention.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim’s arrival in Baghdad on November 19 marked the first such high-ranking state visit since the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003.

Talks With Damascus, Tehran?

And it comes at a time when debate in the United States over Iraq is increasingly turning to the yet-to-be-released recommendations of a bipartisan U.S. commission on how Washington should deal with Iraq’s continuing instability.

One of the anticipated recommendations from the congressionally established Iraq Study Group -- also known as the Baker commission -- is that Washington engage Damascus and Tehran in talks over Iraq’s future.

So, analysts this week are closely watching al-Muallim’s visit for signs of what Damascus could do for Washington in Iraq and what it would want in return.

Al-Muallim (right) in Damascus with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki in May (epa)

Mustafa Alani, a regional expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, says Washington and the Baghdad government see Damascus as less of a problem for Iraq than Tehran. But they accuse Syria of permitting the flow of Arab jihadists and money into Iraq in support of the insurgency.

“The Syrian role in the instability in Iraq is far less, comparably, than the Iranians'," Alani says. "The Syrians have no political party [that they directly back] like the Iranians do. They have no militia [that they directly support], and the only accusation against the Syrians is that they turn a blind eye to terrorist recruits who are crossing their borders.”

Washington accuses Tehran of directly helping fund and arm Shi’ite militias, many of whose leaders were exiles in Iran during the Hussein period.

What Would Damascus Want?

But if Damascus appears less embroiled in Iraq than Tehran does, it does not mean enlisting Damascus’ help would be easy.

Alani says the Syrian government will place tough conditions on its cooperation.

“They are hoping that their positive role in Iraq will bring some sort of positive result in the question of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights [captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War], that those negotiations could be reopened," Alani says. "And [there is also] the question of the results of the [UN-sponsored] investigation into the [former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq] Hariri assassination, which we are basically expecting by the end of the year.”

The UN inquiry into the February, 2005, Hariri assassination has found top Syrian officials were involved in the planning and faults Damascus for failing to cooperate in helping uncover the perpetrators.

The likely Syrian demands for more bargaining power against Israel over Golan and the UN over the assassination investigation make it unclear whether Washington and Damascus could come to terms.

Analysts say that is only likely to add to the debate in the U.S. capital over whether talking to Syria and Iran about Iraq is in fact a good strategy.

Iran And The Nuclear Program

Iran presents its own difficulties for talks – with both Washington and Tehran linking them to concessions from the other in the Iran nuclear dispute.

Still, change – or the search for change -- is in the air, as the Syrian diplomat’s visit shows. Al-Muallim is using his visit at the very least to restate what Syria wants to see in its neighboring state.

And some parts of al-Muallim’s message could be welcome in Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki (right) listens to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih during a press conference in Tehran in September (epa)

"Syria supports the political process and the elected Iraqi government and supports the efforts for national reconciliation," al-Muallim said in Baghdad on November 19.

But other parts of the Syrian’s official’s message may appear intended to increase pressure on the U.S. administration.

“We believe that a timetable for the pulling out of foreign troops from Iraq will help reduce violence in Iraq and maintain security," al-Muallim said.

U.S. President George W. Bush has so far consistently refused to set any timetables, saying that the drawdown of U.S. troops must be tied to the security situation on the ground.

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