Syria offers to help Obama pull troops from Iraq

BAGHDAD, March 25 (Reuters) - Syria's foreign minister said on Wednesday his country would be happy to help U.S. President Barack Obama implement his plan to pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraq.

"Syria is ready to offer whatever help is necessary" to make a success of the U.S. withdrawal plan, Walid al-Moualem told journalists after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during a visit to Baghdad.

The United States had not asked if it could withdraw troops through Syria, he told a joint news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

Moualem's friendly tone was a sign of the marked improvement in bilateral relations since Obama became president on Jan. 20.

Obama said last month the United States would withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by Aug. 31 next year, leaving about 50,000 troops to advise and train Iraq's own forces.

All U.S. troops will have left Iraq by the end of 2011, according to a bilateral security pact.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called Obama "a man of his word" in an interview with an Italian newspaper last week and said he hoped to meet him.

Obama has been reviewing U.S. policy towards Syria and weighing up whether to return an ambassador to Damascus.

Earlier this month one of two envoys he sent there for exploratory talks said they had found "a lot of common ground."

Under former President George W. Bush, relations were extremely strained. U.S. officials accused Syria of doing little to stop the flow of foreign jihadists into Iraq through its porous border, though Syria said it was doing what it could.

After widespread sectarian bloodshed in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion, violence has dropped dramatically in the past year and foreign troops are preparing to leave.

"We believe the situation in Iraq is improving and we hope it will continue on this course and enable the Iraqi people to see the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, according to the timetable agreed upon," Moualem said.

Moualem's visit to Baghdad was his second since Nov. 2006, during which Syria re-established ties with Iraq that had been severed when Saddam Hussein took power. (Writing by Tim Cocks, editing by Tim Pearce)