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Iraqi spat with Syria threatens Obama plan

Assad has been cautiously responding to Obama's overtures, raising hopes that he was prepared to embrace the West. It remains unclear how far he is willing to go, but even a modest step in that direction would weaken Tehran at a critical juncture.
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (UPI) Aug 26, 2009
Iraq's deepening diplomatic rift with Syria over accusations that Damascus is harboring Baathists blamed for a wave of bombings in Baghdad threatens to torpedo U.S. President Barack Obama's strategic plan to woo Syria away from Iran.

Iraq and Syria withdrew their ambassadors "for consultations" from each other's capitals Tuesday, a major setback to patching up relations between the two neighbors that had been encouraged by Washington.

Syria is Iran's sole Arab ally, and Obama has been striving to persuade President Bashar Assad to sever strategic links with Tehran in the hope that would push the Iranian regime toward engaging in a diplomatic dialogue over its controversial nuclear program.

Prying Syria away from the Islamic Republic would also further a renewed U.S. drive for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement and reduce the prospect of new regional conflicts.

It would also isolate Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria, and defuse simmering threats of another bout of sectarian bloodshed in Lebanon.

The Americans have long accused Syria of aiding Iraqi insurgents and giving shelter to Iraqi Baathists and their leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam Hussein's ruthless former deputy.

Baghdad named two of the fugitives Tuesday as Gen. Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan, and demanded the Syrians hand them over.

Ahmed leads a Baathist faction that broke away from the main group led by Douri, the last of Saddam's cronies still at large.

Douri, 66, was Saddam's vice president and deputy chairman of Iraq's powerful Revolutionary Command Council before the Iraqi tyrant was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003.

He has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. The Americans have posted a $1 million reward for the capture or death of Ahmed, a former regional leader under Saddam.

Some U.S. military commanders say that Baghdad still considers supporters of the former regime to be a major threat because they have a greater following than al-Qaida or the Iranian-backed Shiite militants.

In December, dozens of people at three major security ministries in Baghdad were arrested, reportedly for plotting a Baathist coup. The episode sharpened concerns in Baghdad about the efficacy of the Baathists and their alleged support by the Damascus regime.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been striving to build bridges with Damascus since he came to power in 2006 in a bid to secure the expulsion of Douri, Ahmed and their diehard Baathists from Syria.

But little progress was made until Obama took office in January. He launched a major effort to woo Assad into ending support for the Iraqi Baathists as that would facilitate a U.S. withdrawal.

This is only part of the much wider U.S. regional strategy regarding Syria, which like Saudi Arabia and other regional regimes wants a greater political role for Iraq's minority Sunnis, stripped of power since 2003.

The problem is that the U.S. withdrawal will leave a political vacuum that Syrian analyst Sami Moubayed told the Asia Times "is going to be filled either by Iran, the Saudis, the Syrians -- or a combination of the three."

"Syria and Iran do not agree wholeheartedly on how a post-U.S. Iraq should look and Syrian finds itself closer to the Saudi position. ... Learning from the Lebanon experience, the Syrians are not comfortable being surrounded by neighbors who are armed to the teeth, living in lawlessness."

Only a few weeks ago, relations between Baghdad and Damascus seemed to be on an upward curve. They exchanged ambassadors several months ago, and leaders on both sides made official visits to each other's capitals.

Maliki was in Damascus a week ago, only days after a U.S. military delegation was there to discuss regional security issues, including Iraq. Maliki's office stressed that "having a strong relationship with Syria was in the mutual interest of both peoples."

Then came the Baghdad bombings, the deadliest since the U.S. military drawdown began in January. That underlined that there were those in Iraq determined to keep the country aflame -- possibly al-Qaida, or even hard-liners in Iran.

Assad has been cautiously responding to Obama's overtures, raising hopes that he was prepared to embrace the West. It remains unclear how far he is willing to go, but even a modest step in that direction would weaken Tehran at a critical juncture.

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