Iraq accuses Syria of harboring suspects in ministry attacks

Citing ‘hostile act,’ Maliki asks UN to form a tribunal

By Jason Keyser
Associated Press / September 4, 2009

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BAGHDAD - Iraq’s prime minister said yesterday that Syria was sheltering armed groups wanted for cross-border attacks, forcing him to appeal to the United Nations for help in stopping what he called a hostile act.

The prime minister made his appeal as four more people died in attacks around the country.

Relations between Iraq and Syria have been particularly tense since a pair of truck bombings last month outside the foreign and finance ministries in Baghdad that killed about 100 people.

Iraq, which has blamed an alliance between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Ba’ath Party, wants Syria to hand over several suspects it says are based there.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has faced criticism for security lapses that aided the bombers, met with a group of European and Arab ambassadors yesterday to press his case that those who plotted the Aug. 19 attacks are based in Syria.

It is an especially sensitive issue for Maliki, who has used overall improvements in security as his main campaign talking point before January’s national elections.

The ministry bombings have shaken people’s confidence at a time when his government is trying to show it can ensure security now that most US forces have withdrawn from urban areas.

“Why is there this insistence on harboring armed groups and persons wanted by Iraqi jurisdiction?’’ the prime minister said, referring to Syria’s refusal to deliver suspects. His comments were released by his office after the meeting.

Syria, which has demanded to see proof of Iraq’s claims, accuses Maliki’s government of seeking to exploit the ministry attacks to press demands for the handover of Iraqi opposition figures living in Damascus.

Both countries have recalled their ambassadors over the dispute, just as relations between the neighbors were thawing after decades of tension.

Syria is home to a number of Iraqis who were mid-ranking and senior members of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. Iraqi officials say the Syrian government is allowing them to live and engage in political activity in Syria.

Maliki said such groups should not be allowed by the countries hosting them to interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs, especially after the start of the American troop withdrawal.

“Some neighboring countries considered the presence of multinational forces as harmful to their national security, and they started to interfere with the pretext of resisting the occupation,’’ Maliki said. “But, after the withdrawal of US forces, this situation has become unacceptable, and we consider it a hostile act.’’

Even prior to the August attacks, Iraq had asked Syria to cooperate in stopping the activities of Ba’ath Party figures, but instead that activity increased, Maliki said.

“We are now compelled to request the UN Security Council to form an international tribunal, because Iraq is facing a serious threat from neighboring countries,’’ he added.

Maliki hopes the formation of such a tribunal would pressure Syria to deliver suspects in the August bombings.

Overall, violence has eased across Iraq, though attacks have persisted in cities like Baghdad and Mosul in the north. Three roadside bombings in the Mosul area yesterday killed one Iraqi policeman and wounded three people.