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Iraq PM to visit Syria after year-long spat
Writer/Source: AFP (12/10/2010)
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Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is to visit Syria on Wednesday to mend ties after a year-long spat as he tries to win support for his bid to retain the premiership.

"Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is to start on Wednesday, tomorrow, a visit to Syria, our brother country, where he will meet his excellency, President Bashar al-Assad, and Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri," his office said.

"This visit aims to improve relations in the political, economic and commercial sectors in the interests of both countries," Maliki's office said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

It said Maliki's mission to Damascus was part of a series of visits "to different Arab capitals in response to invitations which he has received."

But the visit also comes as Maliki seeks support for his bid to retain the premiership after March 7 elections in which his Shiite bloc finished a narrow second behind the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya group of ex-premier Iyad Allawi.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose radical movement which controls 40 seats in parliament, has thrown its support behind Maliki, whose party still falls short of the majority in parliament needed to form a government.

Maliki also needs the support of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, another Shiite group headed by Ammar al-Hakim, to head a new administration.

He hopes that Hakim, who has close ties with Syria, will soften his opposition to his candidacy for prime minister.

On Sunday, Iraq's ambassador to Damascus resumed his duties, more than a year after the spat sparked by massive truck bombs which Baghdad said were plotted in Syria, a charge denied by Damascus.

The envoys of Syria and Iraq were recalled by their respective governments in August 2009 in the wake of the bombings, which devastated the finance and foreign affairs ministries in Baghdad and left 95 dead and around 600 wounded.

Alaa Hussein al-Jawadi was appointed Iraq's first ambassador in February 2009 when the neighbours re-established diplomatic ties after 28 years. Syria's ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, was named to Baghdad four months earlier.

Iraq accused Syria of sheltering two insurgents, Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan, who orchestrated last year's massive bomb attacks, prompting denials from Damascus.

Baghdad's government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said last month that the request for the extradition of the two men was still pending, but Iraq believed "relations need to develop with good will from both sides."

Dabbagh added that Baghdad wanted to boost economic ties with Damascus, after the two sides agreed last month to build two oil pipelines linking Iraq to Mediterranean sea ports via Syria for exporting crude.

Diplomatic ties between Damascus and Baghdad were severed in 1980 when the countries were ruled by rival wings of the Baath party and Syria backed Iran in a devastating war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq that broke out that year.

Relations started to thaw in 2000 and the two states decided in 2006 to resume formal ties, three years after the US-led invasion of Iraq that was opposed by Damascus.

In April 2009, Otri made the first trip by a Syrian premier to Iraq since the invasion which toppled Saddam and his Sunni-dominated government.

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