U.S.: Syria Agrees to Tighten Iraq Border

Published September 30, 2004

| Associated Press

Syria has agreed to do more to tighten security along the border with Iraq to keep militants from entering the country, a U.S. Embassy official said Thursday.

The decision followed three days of talks between Syrian, U.S. and Iraqi officials on border security. Washington claims foreign fighters have been freely crossing toe 370-mile border to take part in the ongoing insurgency there.

U.S.-Syrian relations have soured in recent months over Washington's claims that Damascus (search) has been doing too little to secure the border to block militants from crossing into Iraq.

Syrian officials have not yet commented on the latest talks in Damascus, which ended Wednesday, but the government has previously said that despite posting hundreds of extra troops along its frontier with Iraq, it is impossible to completely seal off the porous border.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks were "constructive and positive," adding that Syrian officials agreed to take "specific actions in coordination with Iraqi and multinational forces."

The coalition and Iraqi delegation to the talks included representatives of the U.S. Central Command (search), which covers Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. A Western diplomat in Damascus has said the delegation was made up of military officers.

The talks came at a critical point for the United States and Syria, countries whose relations have never been warm. Syria fears that chaos and stability in Iraq could spill over into its territory.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Wednesday described the Damascus talks as constructive and positive.

"The Syrians did agree to take specific actions in coordination with Iraqi and multinational forces," Boucher told reporters. "These steps are designed to close Syria's border to individuals seeking to foment violence and destabilize Iraq."

Boucher urged Damascus to implement its decisions, adding that the United States "will measure the Syrian commitment to the stability of Iraq by the concrete steps that it takes."

U.S. officials have not outlined the specifics of the Syrian border security commitments.

But Boucher said there are "fairly concrete understandings, particularly between the Iraqi government and the Syrian government, on things like communications activities, how they can deploy forces, how they can move together to cut off the border traffic."

Washington has been pressing Syria, which opposed last year's U.S.-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, on other issues also, including the basing of Syrian forces in Lebanon and its support of anti-Israeli Palestinian militant groups.

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