DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The United States stood alone at a conference on Sunday in accusing host Syria of sheltering militants attacking Iraq, while other countries adopted a more conciliatory tone, delegates said.
No other state present at the conference on security for Iraq joined Washington in its open criticism, weeks after a U.S. raid on Syria that targeted suspected militants linked to al Qaeda, they told Reuters.
U.S. Charge d’Affaires Maura Connelly, the senior American diplomat in Syria, told a closed session that Syria must stop allowing what she called terrorist networks using its territory as a base for attacks in Iraq.
Washington’s leading Western ally, Britain, has recently praised Syria for preventing foreign fighters from infiltrating into Iraq, and its foreign secretary, David Miliband, was in Damascus this week pursuing detente with Syria.
“The American diplomat’s speech was blunt and short. The United States was the only country at the conference to criticize Syria openly,” one of the delegates said.
“The British ambassador called on neighboring countries to take action against ‘facilitators’ based inside their territories, but he did not name names,” a second delegate said.
Western countries, Russia, Iran, Iraq and most of Iraq’s other neighbors are attending the meeting in the Syrian capital with the aim of devising security measures to help end violence in Iraq and attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
But Saudi Arabia, which has major disagreements with Syria over Lebanon and Iran, stayed away.
The United States pushed for the meeting in 2006 to get Arab countries to engage more on Iraq. Syria, which opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, agreed to host it on a regular basis as part of a new policy to defuse tension with Baghdad.
It had threatened to cancel the meeting after the U.S. raid on Syria from Iraqi territory on October 26, which Damascus said killed eight civilians. It decided to go ahead after the Iraqi government condemned the strike, reversing an earlier stance.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmad Arnous said Syria was a “victim of terrorism” and that it would not allow any attack on any individual living in its territory, the delegates said.
“Arnous chose not to respond directly to the U.S. charge, but emphasized that Iraq’s stability was in the interest of Syria,” another delegate said.
Arnous was referring to a car bomb attack in September on a military intelligence complex in Damascus that killed at least 17 people. Syria blamed the attack on Fatah al-Islam, a militant group it said was active in Lebanon.
State television showed confessions by alleged Fatah al-Islam members who said the car had come from Iraq.
Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majeed, who made a brief appearance at the meeting, said Syria had enough forces on the border with Iraq to stop what he called infiltration in both directions, dismissing media reports that Syrian guards had been pulled away from the border after the U.S. raid.
Delegates said representatives of China and Russia had condemned the United States for using Iraq as a “base for aggression.” A joint statement issued by Iraq and its neighbors after the meeting said they opposed any offensive action launched from Iraq against its neighbors or vice versa.
A U.S. official in Washington said the September strike had killed Abu Ghadiy, whom he identified as a smuggler of fighters to al Qaeda in Iraq.
The attack further damaged ties between Damascus and Washington, which imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, mainly for its support for the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and the Lebanese Shi’ite movement Hezbollah.
Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria the following year, when the former Western-backed Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated in Beirut.
Editing by Kevin Liffey