updated 9/16/2008 4:54:53 PM ET 2008-09-16T20:54:53

The Syrian government on Tuesday named an ambassador to Iraq for the first time since the 1980s, the state-run SANA news agency reported.

Nawaf Fares, who was the governor of the southeastern Quneitra province, was sworn in before Syrian president Bashar Assad, following similar moves by the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait.

It is the latest indication of Iraq's improved security and the decrease in tension between the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraq's predominantly Sunni Arab neighbors.

SANA did not say when Fares will travel to Baghdad.

'Important move'
In Baghdad, Iraq's deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi described Syria's step as "a positive and important move. It is a big step toward developing the bilateral relations between Syria and Iraq. It is an indication to Syria's willingness to support Iraq."

"We are looking forward to see the Syrian ambassador in Baghdad as soon as possible," Abbawi told The Associated Press by telephone. "We will have better chances for solving the problems between the two countries."

Syria is home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who fled the violence in their country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Iraqi and U.S. officials have in the past accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq and join the insurgency.

Syria has always denied the charge, arguing it is impossible to control the long desert border.

Syria and Iraq formally restored diplomatic relations in November 2006, ending a 24-year break that began when the Damascus government accused Iraq of inciting riots in Syria in 1982 involving the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The two countries were then ruled by rival factions of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, but Syria broke Arab ranks and sided with non-Arab Iran during its 1980-88 war with Iraq. Relations worsened again when Syria joined the U.S.-led alliance that drove Iraq's army out of Kuwait in 1991.

The neighbors further improved relations in December, when they agreed to reactivate an oil pipeline linking Iraq's northern oil fields with Syria's Mediterranean coastline.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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