Friday, June 24, 2005

Iraqi Prime Minister: A crisis with our neighbors will not change Iraq/US relations

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told U.S. lawmakers on Thursday he planned to visit Syria in a bid to ease tensions and urged Washington to keep up pressure on Damascus to stop insurgents crossing the border, officials who attended the meeting said.

Jaafari said Iran should not interfere in Iraq's internal affairs, and said Baghdad's relations with the United States would remain strong even if Washington confronted Tehran militarily over its nuclear ambitions, the officials said.

The Syrian government invited Jaafari earlier this week to visit Damascus for high-level talks, said the Iraqi leader, who will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House on Friday.

Jaafari told the lawmakers he had agreed to the visit and an announcement would be made soon, according to the sources. "He said that that meeting must be productive, must produce results" on issues including border security, one said.

House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, was among members of Congress who attended.

Jaafari said international pressure helped force Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and he believed a similar campaign on behalf of Iraq could prompt Damascus to improve cross-border security, the officials said.

Jaafari met earlier on Thursday with Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. Administration officials declined to comment on those talks.

Asked about the possibility of a conflict with Iran, the Iraqi leader told lawmakers that relations with the United States "will not change even if the United States is in crisis with one of our neighbors," according to a source who attended the meeting. Two other sources confirmed that account. READ MORE

Washington accuses Syria of doing too little to prevent militant Islamists from crossing into Iraq, where they fight U.S. forces. Syria, which opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, says it is cooperating.

U.S. officials accused Syria on Thursday of keeping intelligence agents in Lebanon in defiance of the United Nations.

The White House is preparing an executive order that would bring new pressure on Syria, as well as North Korea and Iran, by pursuing the assets of companies believed to be aiding their weapons or nuclear programs.

Administration officials and congressional aides said the White House is also considering new sanctions on Syria.

Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari met with two Iraqi ministers in Damascus this month, the first such announced meeting between senior Syrian and Iraqi officials since July 2004, when former caretaker Prime Minister Iyad Allawi visited Damascus to discuss cooperation, especially on security.