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
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
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
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.