Syria 'safe haven' for terrorists against Iraq-US
Damascus, November 23, 2008
The United States criticised Syria at a security conference on Sunday for "giving safe haven to terrorists" attacking Iraq, weeks after a US raid on Syria it said was targeting Al Qaeda militants, delegates said.
US Charge d'Affaires Maura Connelly, the highest ranking American diplomat in Syria, told a closed session of a security meeting on Iraq that the Damascus must stop allowing what she described as terrorist networks from using Syria as a base against Iraq, they told Reuters.
The criticism contrasts with the position of Washington's Western allies, including Britain, which praised Damascus for preventing foreign fighters from infiltrating Iraq.
"The American diplomat's speech was blunt and short. The United States was the only country at the conference to criticise Syria openly," one of the delegates said.
"The rest mostly repeated what we have been hearing for years about how the region's stability is tied to Iraq and need for more cooperation," he added.
Western countries, as well as Russia, Iran, Iraq and most of Iraq's other neighbours are attending the meeting in the Syrian capital, which is aimed at devising security measures to help end violence in Iraq and attacks on US and Iraqi forces.
Saudi Arabia, which has major disagreements with Syria over Lebanon and Iran, has not attended the conference.
The United States pushed for the meeting in 2006 to get Arab countries to engage more on Iraq. Syria, which opposed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, agreed to host it on regular basis as part of a new policy to diffuse tension with Baghdad.
Syrian officials had threatened to cancel the meeting after a US raid on Syria from Iraqi territory on Oct. 26 that Damascus said killed eight civilians. It decided to convene the conference after the Iraqi government condemned the strike, reversing an earlier stance.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmad Arnous said Syria was a "victim of terrorism" and that it does not allow any attack on any individual living in its territory, the delegates said.
"Arnous chose not to respond directly to the US charge, but emphasised that Iraq's stability was in the interest of Syria," a second delegate said.
The Syrian official was referring to a car bomb attack in September against a military intelligence complex in Damascus that killed at least 17 people. Syria blamed the attack on Fatah al-Islam, a militant group it said was active in Lebanon.
State television showed confessions of alleged Fatah al-Islam members who said the car came from Iraq.
Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majeed, who made a brief appearance at the meeting, said that Syria had enough forces on the border with Iraq to stop what he termed as infiltration in both directions, dismissing media reports that Syrian guards had been pulled away from the border after the US raid.
A US official said the strike had killed Abu Ghadiy, whom he identified as a smuggler of fighters to Al Qaeda in Iraq. The attack further damaged ties between Damascus and Washington, which plummeted after the United States imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, mainly for its support for the Palestinian Islamist Hamas group and the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah.
Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria the following year, when the Western-backed Lebanese former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. - Reuters