DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) – Iraq’s president was expected in Syria on Sunday, in a landmark visit that could bring his war-ravaged country a small step closer to ending the raging violence and offer Syria the chance to ease its isolation.
A veteran Kurdish politician who had lived for years in exile here, Jalal Talabani is the first Iraqi president to visit Syria in nearly three decades. Saddam Hussein’s predecessor, Ahmaed Hassan al-Bakr, visited in 1979, a time when the two countries — ruled by branches of the Baath Party — even considered merging into one nation.
Talabani’s visit comes only days after President Bush lashed out at Syria and its ally Iran, accusing them of supporting Iraqi insurgents. In a Wednesday address outlining a new strategy for Iraq, Bush also vowed military action to disrupt supply lines coming into Iraq from Syria and Iran.
Despite that, Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Iraqi lawmaker with close ties to Talabani, said the Iraqi leader’s visit to Syria did not amount to an Iraqi snub to Bush. It has been planned for nearly a year, but its date was finalized about two weeks ago, he said from Baghdad.
“The timing may seem a little tricky after what Bush said,” Othman, a Kurd, said in a telephone interview. “But our interests differ from those of the United States. The enmity between the United States and Syria and Iran doesn’t benefit the situation in Iraq.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly charged that Syria was allowing militants to use its territory to slip into Iraq to join the Sunni insurgency there. Syria denies the charge and counters that the Iraqis and their American backers are not doing enough to guard their side of the border.
Talabani was expected to discuss the thorny border issue in talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, hoping for guarantees Damascus would do more to stem the militant traffic.
Analysts say Syria could be tempted to comply, if only partially, to maintain the positive momentum in its improving relations with Iraq.
The two neighbors restored diplomatic relations late last year, more than two decades after they were cut over ideological disputes, Syria’s support of Iran in its 1980-88 war with Iraq and charges that Baghdad supported Syrian militants.
Talabani has been warmer toward Syria than Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who fears that giving Iraq’s neighbors a role in ending the violence in his country would allow them to meddle in Iraqi affairs.
But Iraq needs to independently engage its neighbors even if it disagrees with some of them, said Vali Nasr, a U.S.-based expert on Middle Eastern affairs and a fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations.
“The Iraqis must have their own plan for regional engagement and show that not everything is managed in Washington,” he said.
Syria is a prime candidate for engagement in any regional outreach by Iraq. Its close relations with Iran are a vital asset given Tehran’s vast influence with Iraq’s majority Shiites. It also has good relations with the once-dominant Sunni Arabs and plays host to 800,000 or more Iraqi refugees, including stalwarts of Saddam’s Baath Party known to be active in the Iraqi insurgency.
Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia is blamed for much of Iraq’s sectarian violence, was given a warm welcome by Assad when he visited Syria last year. Al-Sadr is one of al-Maliki’s main political backers.
“Syria can play a constructive role in Iraq, but not necessarily a decisive one,” said Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based Middle East expert. “What Syria can and can not do will not decide the future of Iraq, but it can help.”
Engaging Syria in the search for peace in Iraq could offer Assad’s government an opportunity to ease its relative isolation in the region over its role in Lebanon in support of opposition groups seeking to topple Beirut’s U.S.-backed government.
Relations with longtime U.S. allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan also have been cool, partly over what they see as Syria’s role in promoting Iranian interests in the Arab world.