Syria offers help in Iraq

Chief diplomat calls for U.S. pullout plan

November 20, 2006|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Syria's foreign minister said yesterday during a visit here that his government was ready to help stabilize Iraq, and he called for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, saying it would help reduce the violence.

His trip, the first to Baghdad by a senior Syrian official since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, came on another day of widespread violence in Iraq. A suicide car bombing killed 17 people and wounded 49 in the southern Shiite city of Hillah, and the deputy health minister was kidnapped from his home in the capital.

In recent weeks, Iraqi and some Western officials have promoted the idea of involving Iraq's neighbors, especially Syria and Iran, in the search for a solution to the soaring sectarian violence in Iraq.

President Bush has refused to open high-level talks with Syria and Iran, countries he has accused of providing financing and weapons to militias in Iraq. But as his administration conducts a broad reassessment of its policy in Iraq, the president has come under increasing pressure to drop his opposition.

James A. Baker III, the Republican co-chairman of a bipartisan group studying policy options in Iraq, has met several times with Syrian officials to discuss how they might cooperate with the United States, according to the Syrian ambassador to Washington.

In an interview with the BBC broadcast yesterday, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger endorsed the idea of involving Syria and Iran in discussions of Iraq's future, suggesting that they be included in an international conference.

"At some early point, an international conference should be called that involves neighbors, perhaps the permanent members of the Security Council and countries that have a major interest in the outcome, like India and Pakistan," said Kissinger, who sometimes advises the Bush administration on Iraq policy and who has been consulted by Baker's Iraq Study Group as well. "I believe America has to be in some dialogue with Iran."

Elaborating on his argument for a change in course, Kissinger said that a clear-cut military victory was no longer achievable. At the same time, he argued that withdrawing U.S. forces might lead to a civil war more violent than the fighting that occurred in the former Yugoslavia.

"If you mean by clear military victory an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible," Kissinger said.

"If we were to withdraw all the forces without any international understanding and without any even partial solution of some of the problems, the civil war in Iraq will take on even more violent forms," he said. Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, promised yesterday to cooperate with Iraqi officials in an effort to curb violence. Iraqi and U.S. officials have accused Syria of not doing enough to prevent the flow of foreign fighters and munitions across the Syria-Iraq border.

At a brief news conference with Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, Moallem said he condemned "all the terrorism taking place in Iraq."

He added, "The security and stability of Iraq is vital for the security and stability of Syria."

But Moallem also urged a timetable for a pullout of U.S. forces, saying it "would contribute to reducing the violence in Iraq." The Bush administration has steadfastly refused to implement a timetable.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said in an interview this week that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been "working hard" to bring Iraq's neighbors into the discussions on how to achieve stability in Iraq.

In the Hillah car bombing, the deadliest attack of the day in Iraq, a man driving a minibus loaded with explosives pulled alongside a group of day laborers who had gathered on a street corner to wait for employment offers. As the men eagerly swarmed the van, the driver pushed a detonator and blew up the vehicle.

By nightfall, the police had captured three men suspected of involvement in the attack, including one Iraqi and two Egyptians, according to Maj. Gen. Qais al-Mamouri, the police chief in the town of Babil, near Hillah. The men confessed and said the suicide bomber was Syrian, the general said.

The kidnapping of the deputy health minister, Ammar al-Saffar, occurred yesterday evening when heavily armed gunmen dressed in Iraqi army uniforms stormed his house in northern Baghdad and took him away in a convoy of vehicles, officials said.

The U.S. command reported early today that a soldier from the 89th Military Police Brigade was killed when his vehicle struck a bomb in southeastern Baghdad on Saturday.

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