After nearly a quarter-century of severed ties, Iraq said Monday it will resume diplomatic relations with neighboring Syria — a move seen as a possible step toward stemming some of the unrelenting violence, which claimed another 100 lives.
The Iraqi and Syrian presidents also received invitations from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a weekend summit in Tehran to tackle the chaos in Iraq, Iraqi lawmakers said. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s spokesman said his boss would attend but that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not. The invitation was thought to be an attempt by Iran to counter U.S. influence in the region.
The announcement of restored Iraqi-Syrian ties came during a groundbreaking visit to Baghdad by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who was challenged over Damascus’ role in supporting the Sunni insurgency.
“We object to any neighboring country that allows itself to be a base or a transit point for the terrorist groups that harm Iraq,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said after meeting with the Syrian envoy.
Al-Maliki told Moallem that Damascus should not let its disputes with the United States be played out in Iraq, where the chaos and bloodshed has become “a danger that threatens all, not Iraq only.”
Asked about the Syrian’s visit, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said “the problem is not what they say but what they do.”
“Certainly what we would like to see the Syrians do is take actions to, among other things, prevent foreign fighters from coming across the border into Iraq; and, again, to back up the positive words that they have with some real concrete steps,” Casey said.
Moallem arrived in Iraq on Sunday in the first such high-level visit by a Syrian official since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. He was expected to return to Damascus on Tuesday.
“Diplomatic relations will be restored between the two countries during the visit,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
Break started in 1982
Syria broke diplomatic ties with Iraq in 1982, accusing Iraq of inciting riots by the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Damascus also sided with Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Trade ties were restored in 1997.
More recently, Syria is widely believed to have done little to stop foreign fighters and al-Qaida recruits from crossing its border to join Sunni insurgents in Iraq. It also has provided refuge for many top members of Saddam’s former leadership and political corps, which is thought to have organized arms and funding for the insurgents. The Sunni insurgency, since it sprang to life in the late summer of 2003, has been responsible for the vast majority of U.S. deaths in Iraq.
A U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Saturday night and a U.S. Marine died during combat in Anbar province on Sunday, the military said, raising to at least 2,865 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war. This month in Iraq, 47 American service members have been killed or died.
November toll: 1,371
The Iraqi death toll, meanwhile, rose to at least 1,371 for the first 20 days of November — the highest for any month since The Associated Press began tracking the figure in April 2005.
In all, 25 Iraqis were killed Monday in a series of attacks in Baghdad, Ramadi and Baqouba, police said. The bodies of 75 Iraqis who had been kidnapped and tortured also were found on the streets of the capital, in Dujail to the north of Baghdad and in the Tigris River in southern Iraq.
The Iraqi death toll this month is already well above the 1,216 who died in all of October, which had been the deadliest month in Iraq since the AP began its count.
The actual totals are likely considerably higher because many deaths are not reported. Victims in those cases are quickly buried according to Muslim custom and never reach morgues or hospitals to be counted.
Monday’s civilian victims included Walid Hassan, an actor and comedian on Al-Sharqiyah TV who was shot while driving in western Baghdad. The motive for his slaying was unknown. Hassan had performed in a comedy series called “Caricature,” which mocked coalition forces, insurgents, militias and Iraq’s government.
Assailants also shot to death Fulayeh al-Ghurabi, a Shiite professor at Babil University in the province south of Baghdad, as he was driving home at midday, police said.
Monday's close calls
In addition to the victims of violence, countless Iraqis have had close calls with death. Among them were two government officials who escaped assassination attempts Monday.
Minister of State Mohammed Abbas Auraibi, a member of Iraq’s Shiite majority, said a roadside bomb hit his convoy at about 9:30 a.m. as it was driving on a highway in eastern Baghdad. Two of his bodyguards were wounded.
Hakim al-Zamily, a Shiite deputy health minister, also escaped unhurt when gunmen opened fire on his convoy in downtown Baghdad at noon, killing two of his guards, the minister said.
On Sunday, suspected Sunni insurgents kidnapped another deputy health minister, Shiite Ammar al-Saffar, from his home in northern Baghdad. Officials said the gunmen wore police uniforms and arrived in seven vehicles to abduct al-Saffar, who was believed to be the most senior government official kidnapped in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
Al-Saffar was seized nearly a week after dozens of suspected Shiite militia gunmen in police uniforms kidnapped scores of people from a Ministry of Higher Education office in Baghdad. That ministry is predominantly Sunni.