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Iranian president invites leaders of Iraq and Syria to Tehran for summit
The Iranian move appeared designed to upstage possible U.S. efforts to reach out to Tehran and Damascus.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In an apparent bid to counter U.S. influence in the region, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invited his Iraqi and Syrian counterparts to a weekend summit in Tehran to tackle the chaos in Iraq, Iraqi lawmakers said Monday.
The diplomatic gambit coincided with a groundbreaking visit to Baghdad by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who was challenged over Damascus' role in supporting the Sunni insurgency. The Iraqi government said diplomatic relations between the two countries -- severed nearly a quarter-century ago -- would be restored by today.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the Syrian envoy that Damascus should not let its disputes with the United States be played out in Iraq, where the chaos and bloodshed has become "a danger that threatens all, not Iraq only."
Although a spokesman for the Iraqi president said Syrian President Bashar Assad would not be attending the summit, the Iranian move appeared designed to upstage possible American efforts to reach out to Tehran and Damascus in a wider effort to subdue runaway violence in Iraq.
The invitation was also a display of Iran's increasingly muscular role in the Middle East, where it already has established deep influence over Syria and Lebanon. Tehran is thought to benefit from a low level of chaos in Iraq to keep the United States bogged down -- but is wary that too much bloodshed could cause trouble across its own border, where Kurds could become restive.
A close parliamentary associate of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the summit represents an attempt by Tehran to strengthen its position in the region and prevent the United States from dividing Syria, a predominantly Sunni Arab country, from its ally of convenience, Shiite Iran.
The close Talabani associate, a fellow Kurd, said Talabani has accepted the invitation and will fly to the Iranian capital Saturday. The associate spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
Talabani spokesman Kamaran Qaradaghi said in a statement late Monday that the Tehran meeting would only include Talabani and Ahmadinejad. He said, however, that Talabani had accepted an invitation to meet with Assad in Damascus. No date was set.
The State Department reacted with skepticism about Iran's intentions in Iraq, but said it was up to Iraq to decide whether to attend. "It's their call; it's their decision," deputy spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington.
"We have seen statements like this many times in the past," and there have been several high-level contacts between Iran and Iraq, Casey said. But Iran's statements of a desire to reduce violence in Iraq "have not been backed up by facts."
In all, 25 Iraqis were killed Monday in a series of attacks in Baghdad, Ramadi and Baqouba, police said. The bodies of 75 Iraqis who had been kidnapped and tortured also were found on the streets of the capital, in Dujail to the north of Baghdad and in the Tigris River in southern Iraq.
Asked about the Syrian foreign minister's visit to Iraq for high-level talks, Casey said, "The problem is not what they say but what they do."
"Certainly what we would like to see the Syrians do is take actions to, among other things, prevent foreign fighters from coming across the border into Iraq; and, again, to back up the positive words that they have with some real concrete steps," Casey said.
Both Iran and Syria are seen as key players in Iraq.
Syria is widely believed to have done little to stop foreign fighters and al-Qaida recruits from crossing its border to join Sunni insurgents in Iraq. It also has provided refuge for many top members of Saddam Hussein's former leadership and political corps, which is thought to have organized arms and funding for the insurgents. The Sunni insurgency, since it sprang to life in the late summer of 2003, has been responsible for the vast majority of U.S. deaths in Iraq.
"We object to any neighboring country that allows itself to be a base or a transit point for the terrorist groups that harm Iraq," al-Maliki said after meeting with the Syrian envoy.
Iran is deeply involved in training, funding and arming the two major Shiite militias in Iraq, where Tehran has deep historic ties to the current Shiite political leadership. Many Iraqi Shiites spent years in Iranian exile during Saddam's decades in power in Baghdad. One militia, the Badr Brigade, was trained in Iran by the Revolutionary Guard.
An Ahmadinejad spokesman said that Talabani's visit was scheduled several weeks ago for late November to work on improving bilateral relations. The spokesman, Majid Yazdi, said that he had no information on a coming visit by the Syrian leader.
But Talabani confidants said the invitation was issued Thursday by the Iranian ambassador who said Assad also was invited to the Tehran talks with Ahmadinejad.
Other lawmakers who confirmed the invitation to the AP were Reda Jawad Taqi, a senior official with Iraq's largest Shiite political organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; Ali al-Adeeb, a close aide to al-Maliki; and Bassem Sharif, a lawmaker from the Shiite Fadila party.
Assad's foreign minister, Moallem, was the highest-level Syrian official to visit Iraqi since Saddam's ouster in 2003. Syria broke diplomatic ties with Iraq in 1982, accusing Iraq of inciting riots by the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Damascus also sided with Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Trade ties were restored in 1997.