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    Middle East
     Sep 10, 2009
Maliki hangs tough on Syria
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The Syria-Iraq crisis, which erupted after six attacks ripped through government buildings in Baghdad on August 19, seems to be snowballing on Iraq's side.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for an international tribunal to bring suspects of the bombings to trial, claiming that the masterminds of the attacks were two Iraqi Ba'athists based in Syria.

The Syrians have repeatedly asked Maliki to provide evidence that these two men were indeed involved in the attacks, but to date Baghdad has failed to provide any evidence, only recalling its

ambassador to Damascus.

On Sunday, the Syrian state-run daily al-Thawra wrote, "Syria never handed over people who took shelter from the threat of injustice, arbitrary acts and death." The Syrians have repeatedly reminded Maliki that if they had answered any calls to extradite Iraqi refugees, not backed with proper evidence, then he would not today be the prime minister of Iraq. Maliki was a fugitive in Damascus during the long years of the Saddam Hussein era, and the Syrians repeatedly turned down extradition requests made by Saddam to hand him over to Baghdad.

The August attacks that hit Baghdad's Green Zone, a safe haven since 2003, targeted parliament and the Ministry of Defense and devastated the Foreign and Finance ministries. More than 100 Iraqis were killed and another 400 were wounded, sending shockwaves throughout Baghdad and infuriating ordinary Iraqis who now hold their representatives accountable for the massive security breach.

The assumption that the masterminds are in Syria is based on a confession made by a former Iraqi policeman and Ba'athist, who was shown after arrest on state-run Iraqi TV on August 23 saying that he had received orders to carry out the attacks from Satam Falah and Muhammad Yunis Ahmad. The two men, both retired one-time senior officials under Saddam, were indeed based in Syria at one point, although it is unclear if they are still there.

And even if there were, there was no official request from the Iraqi government to its Syrian counterpart asking for their extradition, prior to the withdrawal of ambassadors. Sources point to an August 11 article by Reuters (eight days before Black Wednesday), in which a United States State Department official was quoted as saying, "Syria already this year expelled Mohammad Yunis, a main figure in the outlawed [Iraqi] Ba'ath Party, who is wanted by the US-backed Iraqi government but has little military operational importance on the ground."

If anything, that proves that at least Yunis is no longer based in Syria. And even if he were, he is not capable of carrying out such an operation "with little military operational importance". This supports the Syrian argument, which says that the Iraqi accusations are baseless.

Nevertheless, Iraq withdrew its ambassador from Damascus, demanding that Syria hand over the two men, while Syria reciprocated by withdrawing its ambassador from Baghdad. Many are already asking how this crisis will end. For their part, the Syrians have two uniform answers: either the Iraqis come up with concrete evidence proving that the two men are based in Syria, and were responsible for Black Wednesday. Or the Iraqi government needs to resend its ambassador to Damascus and apologize for the entire ordeal if it cannot produce such evidence.

This week, Iraq seemed far from giving anything close to an apology. Maliki's al-Da'wa Party staged demonstrations chanting anti-Syrian slogans, raising tension to unprecedented levels between Damascus and Baghdad. The demonstrations, which took place in al-Hilla, south of Baghdad, brought 200 people to the streets, including officials in the Maliki regime. Many of the al-Da'wa members now spreading anti-Syrian rhetoric were one-time allies of Syria, who for years were protected by Syria against the dragnet of Saddam.

Reportedly, more demonstrations are scheduled for September 24, ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting at which Iraq's request for an international tribunal will be discussed. Certain Iraqi officials, however, are trying to downplay the crisis with Syria.

The Iraqi presidency released a statement on Tuesday, signed off by President Jalal Talabani, calling for "containing" the Syrian-Iraqi crisis, while ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi said that the entire ordeal was "fabricated" by the Iraqi government to cover up its own law-and-order shortcomings.

He added that accusations against Damascus were neither diplomatic nor professional. Reportedly, Talabani, who like Maliki is a former fugitive in Syria, will visit Turkey soon, where he might meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the aim of curbing the diplomatic row between the countries.

For its part, Turkey has tried in the past 10 days to play mediator between the two, banking on its excellent relations with both Damascus and Baghdad.

Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) is also critical of the prime minister's approach, calling for a more even-handed and diplomatic resolution of the crisis with Syria.

This is due to two factors: the SIIC's excellent relations with Iran and the fact that the SIIC is no longer allied to Maliki, having established a new Shi'ite coalition to challenge him ahead of parliamentary elections set for January. Mehdi is a prime minister hopeful, having nominated himself for the post twice and lost, once against Maliki's former boss Ibrahim Jaafari and again in 2006 against Maliki.

Meanwhile, violence continues to shake Iraq, with a string of bombings on Monday leading to the killing of 18 and wounding of 40. Sunni guerillas targeted a checkpoint in Ramadi, a Shi'ite mosque in Baaquba and civilians in the holy Shi'ite city of Karbala.

On Sunday, a criminal broke into a house in Mosul, killing a three-year-old girl and her grandmother before fleeing, adding a new criminal dimension to the security chaos in Iraq.

Maliki has been arresting former Ba'athists in Iraq left and right to prove his belief that they were behind the attacks on August 19. In recent months, ordinary Iraqis have complained that Maliki had failed to revive the dislocated economy, had done a poor job in promoting reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi'ites, had provided no new jobs for thousands of the unemployed and had been unable to bring millions of refugees, uprooted after the war of 2003, back to Iraq.

Maliki had succeeded in bringing a certain level of security to war-torn Iraq, as seen by the relative calm witnessed in the 18 months prior to the August bombings. Now, security is no longer on the list of Maliki's achievements, sending early signals that if he does not find a scapegoat - and answers to why this happened, fast - then he has begun his long march into history, ahead of the parliamentary elections.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

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Iraqi violence overshadowed
(Sep 9, '09)

Iraq burns its bridges with Syria
(Aug 27, '09)



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