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Syria becomes prime business, vacation destination for Iraqis

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Vacationing businessman Waed Jassem sits comfortably in a rundown, smoke-filled Damascus cafe, playing backgammon with other Iraqi visitors and praising Syria's beaches and mountains, the warmth of its people, and, most especially, the calm.

"Security is something great," he said. "It is the thing that we miss most in Iraq."

This summer, an estimated 250,000 Iraqis have flocked to Syria, with the toppling of Saddam Hussein making it easier for them to travel and do business.

Syria has been a prime destination, with its policy of issuing visas on demand to any Arab visitor and its history of personal and political ties with its neighbor.

Cars with Iraqi license plates are abundant in downtown Damascus. Hotels are full, and real estate agents say prices have gone up sharply with the increasing number of Iraqi visitors. Armed with a passport, hard to get under Hussein, scores of Iraqis are also heading to Syria to apply for visas at foreign embassies in Damascus.

Many initially went to the private beach resorts of Lattakia, Syria's most modern seaport. By midsummer, though, tourists headed to cooler, livelier Damascus and the mountains, leaving Lattakia to business travelers. Tartous, a nearby harbor town, attracts mainly Iraqi traders.

"Work is good," said Yaarob al-Qaisi, a 42-year-old Iraqi industrialist who was counting his money in a Tartous hotel full of businessmen.

The collapse of Hussein's regime has meant an end to tight border controls, and entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity for business. For almost a year, al-Qaisi has been importing trucks and other construction vehicles from Germany to Iraq through Tartous. "I know dozens of other Iraqis doing the same," he said.

It's a contrast from the suspicions that characterized official Syrian-Iraqi relations for decades. Syria's branch of the ruling Ba'ath party broke with the Iraqi Ba'ath in 1966 amid political infighting. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Syria was the only Arab country to support Persian Iran. Syria also joined the US-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, though it vehemently opposed the latest war.

During the latest Iraq war, US officials accused Syria of harboring fleeing members of the Iraqi Ba'ath party and sending foreign fighters to Iraq. Syria denied the charges. Even today, the Iraqi interim government says Syria is not doing enough to stop infiltration of terrorists into Iraq.

Such political tensions seem to have little effect on people-to-people relations.

"The Syrian people are very hospitable and show solidarity with the Iraqi people. We feel comfortable in Syria," said Faisal Elias, 27, who exports wood and Syrian-made soft drinks to Baghdad.

Elias has Syrian business partners and recently bought a house in a Damascus suburb. He and his wife, 24-year-old Raghad, plan to divide their time between Baghdad and Damascus.

"This suits me. I feel free in Syria," Raghad Elias said.

Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Syrian analyst and publisher of an online newsletter on Syria, said the Syrian and Iraqi people have historically been friendly. He noted important religious shrines in Syria, including Sayda Zeinab, visited by scores of Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims who come to pay homage to the Prophet Mohammed's granddaughter, Zeinab.

Iraqis opposed to Hussein have long found a haven in Syria. During an official visit to Syria last week, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi thanked Syria for supporting and welcoming Iraqis "when we were struggling against the dictatorship in Iraq."

More than half a million Iraqis fled to Syria ahead of the US-led war that began in March 2003.

Jassem, the Iraqi businessman, said he came with his wife to "escape the hot weather and security situation in Iraq."

"Syrians are generous people. I don't feel like a stranger here," he said.

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