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Tuesday, 26 September, 2000, 03:38 GMT 04:38 UK
Iraq bids for Syrian flights
Tariq Aziz
Tariq Aziz: Relations with Syria are improving
By Nick Pelham in Damascus

The Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister,Tariq Aziz, has gone to Syria on a previously unannounced visit.

Mr Aziz held talks in Damascus with the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faruq al-Shara. Syrian officials said he would meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday.

The visit comes amid increasing calls in the region for Arab states to break the 10-year-old United Nations air embargo on Iraq.

Russian plane at Baghdad airport
A Russian jet in Baghdad: Iraq wants more countries to follow suit

The Iraqi delegation is hopeful that Syria will now follow the example of France and Russia and fly its planes to Baghdad.

Syria has already expressed strong support for an end to the air embargo. But observers say Damascus will be anxious to secure Arab support before breaking United Nations sanctions alone.

Earlier this week President Bashar al-Assad held talks by telephone with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, and the Syrian press says President Bashar will visit Egypt before the end of the month, in his first trip abroad since assuming power in July.

Thaw

After 20 years of rivalry under the late President Hafez al-Assad, Syria's relations with Iraq are improving rapidly.

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad: It is the highest-level contact with Iraq since he came to power in July

Syria supported Iran in its war with Iraq in the 1980s and sided with the US-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.

The two countries re-established diplomatic links earlier this year and in a move designed to ease Iraqi isolation, Damascus restored train links with Baghdad for the first time since 1982.

Now observers are wondering whether or when Syrian planes might follow suit.

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