November 12, 2008 / 8:33 PM / in 9 years

Syria to host Iraq security meeting despite U.S. raid

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The Syrian government will host a U.S.- backed security conference on Iraq as planned later this month, despite a threat to cancel it because of a U.S. raid on Syria in October, diplomats said on Wednesday.

Invitations were issued to countries including the United States, France, Iran, Iraq and its other neighbors shortly before the October 26 U.S. strike, they told Reuters.

“There had been a lot of doubt whether the conference would take place. The United States, Britain and other governments have not yet replied, mainly due to the uncertainty,” one of the diplomats said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem confirmed after meeting his Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari in the Syrian capital on Wednesday that the conference would convene in Damascus on November 22.

“It will convene as scheduled,” Moualem told Reuters.

Speculation has been rife that Syria might scrap the meeting -- the third in as many years -- to protest at the U.S. raid. The government responded by shutting down an American school and a cultural center.

A senior Syrian official had told Arab ambassadors that Syria might also cancel the annual meeting, which is aimed at devising security cooperation measures to help stop the violence in Iraq and rebel attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The United States pushed for the meeting in 2006 as part of its drive to get Arab countries to engage on Iraq. Syria agreed to host it every year as part of a new policy to defuse tension with the Shi‘ite-led government in Baghdad.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have accused Syria of allowing Islamist fighters to infiltrate Iraq. The raid by the United States on a border area in eastern Syria further strained relations between Damascus and Baghdad.

Syria said eight civilians died in the attack. A U.S. official said it had killed Abu Ghadiy, whom he identified as a top smuggler of foreign fighters to al Qaeda in Iraq.

FURIOUS

Syrian officials were furious at Iraq’s initial reaction to the raid, the sources said.

An Iraqi government spokesman said a day after the raid that U.S. forces targeted an area from where what he described as terrorist groups attacked Iraq. He later moderated his tone and said Baghdad rejected U.S. “aggression” against Syria.

Zebari condemned the raid but said after meeting President Bashar al-Assad that the major figure killed had been wanted by Iraq for years.

“This incident, and others, shows the need for security coordination. I received assurances from President Assad that Syria is ready to discuss this issue professionally,” he said.

Assad this week criticized a security pact being negotiated between Baghdad and Washington as a potential threat to neighboring states.

The official Syrian news agency said Zebari gave Assad a letter from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki assuring Assad that any pact Iraq signed with the United States would not undermine Syria’s security.

Zebari said Iraq would ensure the agreement did not give the United States a free hand and that the days when Iraq invaded other nations -- a reference to the 1980-1988 war with Iran and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait -- were history.

Damascus opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought down the Sunni-dominated political system led by Saddam Hussein. Syria’s foreign minister at the time called the invasion “armed robbery.”

Editing by Tim Pearce

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