Iraq and Syria Resume Diplomatic Relations

Iraq and Syria say they are re-establishing full diplomatic ties, nearly a quarter century after breaking them. The announcement came amid a visit to Baghdad by Syria's foreign minister, his first since the U.S.-led invasion. The neighboring countries broke off relations in the early 1980s when Syria sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Iraq and Syria today said they are reestablishing full diplomatic ties nearly a quarter of a century after they broke them. The announcement came amid a visit to Baghdad by Syria's foreign minister, his first since the U.S.-led invasion.

The neighboring countries broke off relations in the early 1980s at the start of the Iran-Iraq war when Syria sided with Iran. We go now to our Baghdad correspondent Jamie Tarabay.

And, Jamie, is this the reason why the Syrian foreign minister came to Baghdad in the first place, to effectively make this announcement?

JAMIE TARABAY: It does seem that way. We know that the idea was floating around for a while earlier this year. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, under his reconciliation plan, said that he was going to reach out to Iraq's neighbors to try to reestablish communication, to try and get some cooperation in terms of trying to end the security crisis that's going in this country.

And Syria is one of Iraq's main neighbors and one of the biggest players in the region, was the place that Maliki was definitely directing his attention towards. So, you know, the Syrian foreign minister came this weekend, he's met with everyone and it seems to be going well. They signed an agreement with his counterpart, the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, over the weekend.

And it's the first step in, you know, one of many in terms of trying to reestablish communications and cooperations and try to resolve the security crisis here.

MONTAGNE: Well, one of the things is that Iraq has been trying to get Syria to halt the flow of insurgents and arms across the Iraq/Syrian border. So how important is this development if they're trying to do that?

TARABAY: It's crucial. I mean the U.S. in particular has accused Damascus of turning a blind eye to a stream of foreign fighters flowing into Iraq from Syria and also in different areas from Saudi Arabia as well. We were at a press briefing yesterday with a top U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell, and he said that since operations has begun in Iraq that 670 foreign fighters have been captured and more than 420 have been killed. And of those, 20 percent were from Syria. There's also some from Saudi Arabia, as well as Yemen and Egypt.

But the fact that there have been all of these people coming into the country -and most of the government officials have been trying to put the blame for much of the violence on the foreign fighters to also try and cultivate a sense of reconciliation on the ground as well.

So this is very important on so many different levels, but most particularly in trying to stem the flow of foreign fighters and trying to stop all of these attacks.

MONTAGNE: And then this weekend Iraq's president will go, if you will, in the other direction, visiting Iran.

TARABAY: That's right. President Jalal Talabani has accepted an invitation by the Iranian president to come to a weekend summit. But we understand that the Syrian president won't be attending but he'll be sending a representative. We've heard that this is a move by Iran to try and increase its influence within the region.

As it is, Iran has a tremendous amount of influence in this country. The people who are in charge spend much of their time in exile in Iran. Iran is accused, at least by people within the ranks in Washington, of funding and training Shiite militias that are now part of the police force. So, you know, it's going to be very interesting to see what happens this weekend and what the message will be that comes out of it.

MONTAGNE: And, Jamie, November's civilian death toll sadly appears headed for a record.

TARABAY: Yes. We've seen more and more attacks over the last few days. One of the ones that hit hardest I guess among the Iraqis here was the death yesterday of Walid Hassan, who appears on a comedy show here in Iraq. He was found dead in Yarmouk in West Baghdad with three bullet wounds to his head.

And this is a man who really tried to bring a bit of joy into the lives of Iraqis in terms of trying to get them to poke fun of their everyday lives. And he'll be missed.

MONTAGNE: Jamie, thanks very much.

TARABAY: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jamie Tarabay speaking from Baghdad.

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