Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Iraqis Demand Syria Turn Over Suspects

By MARC SANTORA New York Times BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government demanded Tuesday that Syria hand over two men it accused of helping to organize last week’s deadly bomb attacks, heightening tensions between the neighboring countries as Iraqi officials worked to reassure the public that they were in control of the security situation. An atmosphere of unease pervaded Baghdad, where a decree to remove the blast walls that line many of the main thoroughfares was suspended and searches at checkpoints in and out of the capital were stepped up. Trucks bringing fuel into the city were frequently stopped and turned back, leading to long lines at gas stations. Iraqi officials summoned the ambassador to Syria back to Baghdad for consultations, prompting Syria to call its ambassador home. Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said that two people who the Iraqis say took part in the attacks, Mohammad Younis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan, were free in Syria and that the government demanded they be apprehended and extradited. “We also demand that Syria hand over every person wanted for committing murders and crimes against Iraqis and to kick out all terrorist organizations that use Syria as a base to launch and plan such operations against Iraqi people,” he said in a statement. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki issued a stern statement Tuesday night that was likely to strain ties further. Though he did not mention Syria by name, he said “other countries and governments” were behind the bombings last Wednesday, which left about 100 people dead and hundreds more wounded. “Neighboring countries should behave like good neighbors because it is not hard for us to do the same things they did,” he warned. Syrian officials in Baghdad could not be reached for comment. The American Embassy in Baghdad had no comment on the diplomatic squabbling. The increasingly harsh words coming from Baghdad could complicate efforts by the Obama administration to establish a better relationship with Syria, since a main source of friction has been regional security. Iraq and Syria have longstanding grudges that go back to the foundation of the Baath Party — a branch of which controls Syria — and Saddam Hussein’s government. Diplomatic ties between the countries were severed in 1982; relations were re-established only in 2006. As the Iraqis focused on foreign involvement, an insurgent group linked to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq, posted a statement online claiming responsibility for the attacks. Calling the Iraqi government “an agent of Iran,” the statement seemed intended to stir sectarian tensions. “If all the people of the Islamic State of Iraq die, all of them, that would be better than one wicked Shiite ruling them,” it said. During the height of the violence in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, Iraqi and American security officials believed that Baathists and elements of Al Qaeda worked together at times. Those links, according to Iraqi security officials, have frayed in recent years. Rarely is there any firm evidence of who is responsible for major attacks in Baghdad. The government will routinely play heavily edited video confessions from those they claim took part in attacks, but the statements are impossible to verify. The best indication of who is behind a major attack, according to American and Iraqi officials, is the nature of the attack itself. Last week’s deadly bombings bore the earmarks of a Qaeda attack because they were large, simultaneous explosions, the officials said, and they coincided with the anniversary of the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad six years ago. Yet Iraqi and American officials have repeatedly pointed to neighboring countries, particularly Iran and Syria, as having a role in the violence in Iraq — a charge both countries deny. Also on Tuesday, the convoy used by the mayor of Baghdad was hit by an improvised explosive device. The mayor was unharmed but five others were wounded. A bomb in the center of Baghdad later in the day wounded four civilians.

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