DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) -Iraq’s embattled Nouri al-Maliki came to Syria on Monday on his first visit here as prime minister amid efforts to garner neighbors’ support for curbing violence at home.
The three-day sojourn by the Iraqi Shiite leader is expected to focus on the sensitive border issues plaguing the two nations.
The United States and Iraq have repeatedly accused Syria of failing to rein in the flow of militants, foreign fighters and arms across the porous boundary into Iraq.
Syria denies the charges that it is fueling the anti-American insurgency, saying it is impossible to control the long desert border.
Last week, al-Maliki went to Turkey and Iran, and said he would continue traveling to other countries to seek help in stemming the violence that has ravaged Iraq.
Syria’s official news agency SANA said that al-Maliki’s talks here would deal with the current security and political situation in Iraq, as well as economic cooperation between the two countries.
Syria hosts nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees who have sheltered mostly in Damascus and its suburbs. Damascus has lately complained of the increasing number of Iraqis pouring into the country and has called on the U.S. and the Iraqi government to shoulder their responsibilities and share the burden of providing for the refugees.
Al-Maliki was accompanied on the trip by a high-level Iraqi delegation, including ministers of interior, trade, oil and water resources. He is expected to hold talks with Syrian leaders, including President Bashar Assad, his deputy Farouk Sharaa and al-Maliki’s Syrian counterpart Naji Ottri.
“This visit is to implement the government’s policy that depends on the basis of security, economic and political relations with the neighboring countries and ways to enhance these relations,” al-Maliki told reporters accompanying him on the trip.
“We will discuss the serious security file and its challenges, which concern not only Iraq but the whole region,” al-Maliki said. “We will discuss the Iraqi community and immigrants in Syria and the ways to provide them with services.”
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told The Associated Press that Iraq and Syria have signed a note pledging to exchange information. Also, Syria has handed over 13 suspects sought by Baghdad, he said, but did not provide details about the suspects.
“There is also an exchange of information about the terrorist cells,” al-Bolani said. “We will discuss the file of the wanted from Saddam’s regime.”
At home, al-Maliki’s already shaky government has been hit with a series of Cabinet desertions by both Shiite and Sunni Arabs, although the Kurdish portion of his coalition has held fast so far.
Syria’s state-run Al-Thawra newspaper said the visit by al-Maliki — who lived in Syria in the 1990s as a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq — would be a chance to “present the Syrian response to all that can alleviate the suffering of the brotherly (Iraqi) people.”