Image: Iraq-Iran border security
Antonio Castaneda  /  AP
A convoy of U.S. Army Humvees patrols the hills that separate Iraq and Iran, looking for paths used by illegal immigrants believed to be feeding the insurgency.
updated 4/30/2005 8:25:54 PM ET 2005-05-01T00:25:54

Iraq's neighbors pledged on Saturday to boost border security and increase intelligence sharing with the country's newly elected government, steps that could stem the flow of insurgents slipping across the poorly patrolled frontiers.

The neighbors -- which include Syria and Iran, two countries accused by U.S. officials of failing to prevent insurgents from crossing their borders -- also agreed to hold a meeting of their interior ministers in Turkey in the coming weeks to discuss details of how they could better monitor their borders.

Syria, meanwhile, announced it would restore relations with Iraq after a break of more than two decades in ties between the neighbors.

The decisions were made during a meeting of the foreign ministers of Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Saudi Arabia also attended, but was represented by its deputy foreign minister.

Fear of spreading violence
Iraq's neighbors have been deeply concerned that violence and ethnic instability in Iraq could spread throughout the region, and that danger was a major topic of discussion during the meeting, held at a former Ottoman palace overlooking the Bosporus.

"We see that many international terrorist organizations are active in Iraq, and it is necessary to have close cooperation, which we have emphasized here," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said at the close of the meeting.

U.S. military officers have repeatedly said that insurgents regularly cross the Syrian and Iranian borders, which are long and poorly patrolled, and there have been allegations that insurgents were organizing in Syria and smuggling money through that country.

In their final communique, the neighbors "expressed their determination ... to increase their cooperation on the overall border security with Iraq ... including ... exchange of intelligence with Iraq with the primary aim of stemming terrorist and other illegal infiltrations to and from Iraq."

It was not clear what steps the neighbors could take. Iran's border, for example, is mountainous and has for decades been used by smugglers. Some observers say that some of the neighbors such as Syria may have an interest in keeping Iraq unstable and preventing the United States from solidifying its power in Iraq.

Cooperation with new Iraq government
The meeting was the eighth conference by the neighbors. At other meetings the neighbors also stressed improving border cooperation, but Saturday's pledge follows the election of a new Iraqi government that has regional legitimacy and marks Syria's establishing relations with Iraq.

The neighbors also "pledged to support and cooperate with the newly elected" government and stressed the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq.

The new government is dominated by Kurds and the majority Shiites at the expense of Sunni Muslims, who made up the elite during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Many of Iraq's neighbors are deeply concerned that ethnic tensions could lead to the fragmentation of the country.

"Iraq cannot be a place where one entity prevails over the others, nor can it be a place divided up as desired," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said as he opened the meeting.

"Such attempts will meet the reaction of the countries of the region and the international community," he said.

Iraq's parliament approved the country's first popularly elected government on Thursday.

Turkey, Iran and Syria, which all have substantial Kurdish populations, are also deeply concerned by the growing power of Iraqi Kurds and fear that Kurds could break away from Iraq and try to establish their own state, which could fuel similar aspirations among Kurds in the neighboring states.

That concern is especially strong in Turkey, which has been battling Turkish Kurdish rebels in its own southeast since 1984, a fight that has left 37,000 dead.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, dismissed those concerns and said that, despite the daily violence in Iraq, "the political process is alive."

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