Page last updated at 15:43 GMT, Monday, 31 August 2009 16:43 UK

Iraq-Syria war of words escalates

Turkish and Iraqi Foreign Ministers Ahmad Davutoglu and Hoshyar Zebari in Baghdad
Baghdad, with Damascus, is the scene of intense international diplomacy

Syria's president has hit back at Iraqi accusations that Syria supports deadly insurgent attacks in Iraq, calling the claims immoral and illogical.

President Bashar al-Assad was speaking as Turkey launched a diplomatic initiative to defuse a growing rift.

Iraq has accused Syria of hosting terrorist training camps and sheltering alleged masterminds of recent attacks.

France and Iran have also joined efforts to cool a row which threatens regional stability and co-operation.

Last week, Iraq and Syria recalled their ambassadors from each other's capitals following Iraqi allegations of Syrian involvement in two devastating bombings on 19 August in Baghdad which killed about 100 people.

Speaking at a joint news conference with his Cypriot counterpart, Dimitris Christofias, President Assad said Syria had asked Iraq to provide evidence to back up its claims, but had not received any response.

When Syria is accused of terrorism without proof, it is outside any legal logic
President Bashar al-Assad

"When Syria is accused of killing Iraqis at a time it's hosting around 1.2 million Iraqis... the least that can be said about this accusation is that it's immoral," Mr Assad said.

"When Syria is accused of supporting terrorism, while it has been fighting it for decades... this is a political accusation that follows no political logic.

"And when it is accused of terrorism without proof, it is outside any legal logic," he added.

'Religious teaching'

Indicating from the Iraqi side that the row was far from being settled, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said "90% of terrorists" of Arab origin had infiltrated Iraq via Syria.

He was speaking during a visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmad Davutoglu, who was due to head to Damascus after meeting the Iraqi president and foreign minister.

In comments to reporters at Ankara airport, Mr Davutoglu had spoken of his desire to "re-establish trust and goodwill between the two sides" so that the crisis could be overcome.

Iraq's Foreign Ministry after 19 August attack, for which Iraq blames Syria
The ministry bomb attacks were among the worst in Iraq since 2003

On Sunday, Iraqi security officials made fresh accusations about Syria's alleged role, showing journalists footage of what they said was a Saudi militant confessing he had attended a training camp in Syria.

The 29-year-old, calling himself Muhammad al-Shamari, said he had then crossed into Iraq and carried out a number of attacks.

"They taught us lessons in Islamic law and trained us to fight. The camp was well known to Syrian intelligence," he said.

Last week, Iraqi police broadcast the confession of an Iraqi man, in which he said a former Iraqi Baathist based in Syria had ordered him to carry out the ministry bombings. It is impossible to verify any of the claims.

Ties between Iraq and Syria, ruled by rival branches of the Arab nationalist Baath Party, were characterised by strong mutual hostility for most of Saddam Hussein's rule from 1979.

Tensions resurfaced after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, although diplomatic relations were restored in 2006.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki of Iran, a close ally of both countries, visited Iraq and Syria on Sunday in an attempt to mediate.

The French foreign ministry said on Monday: "We hope that Syria and Iraq will quickly return their relations to normal and continue building closer ties as they had been doing in recent months."

Before setting off to Baghdad, Mr Davutoglu said he had held a lengthy telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday to discuss the dispute.

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