- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

President Bush yesterday told Syria and Iran to stop meddling in Iraq, as the Iraqi defense minister accused his nation’s two neighbors of aiding a terrorist insurgency to disrupt elections set to take place in six weeks.

“We will continue to make it clear to both Syria and Iran that … meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interests,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office at the end of a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Mr. Bush called on Iraq’s neighbors to work with the interim Iraqi government to enforce border security ahead of elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

“We expect there to be help in establishing a society in which people are able to elect their leaders, and that we expect people to work with the Iraqi interim government to enforce border, to stop the flow of people and money that aim to help these terrorists,” the president said.

“We made that very clear, and we’ll continue to make it clear.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara agreed during a September meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to step up cooperation with the United States and Iraq along the border and stop terrorists from using Syrian soil as a base for operations in Iraq. An agreement with the Iraqi government on how to implement the pledge was reached in October.

Mr. Bush also said that despite the religious split in Iraq, other nations — especially Iraq’s neighbors — should be working to ensure a future in which all religions can peacefully coexist.

“For the good of the area … there ought to be a peaceful country where the different religions can come together,” Mr. Bush said.

The president’s comments came after Hazem Shaalan, the defense minister in Iraq’s interim government, accused Iran and Syria of aiding al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi and former agents of Saddam Hussein to promote an Islamist insurgency in Iraq.

“Iran runs a major terrorist ring inside Iraq,” Mr. Shaalan said, repeating accusations frequently made by himself and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a fellow Shi’ite, along with 60 percent of Iraq’s population.

“I have already said that [Iran] is the prime enemy of Iraq, an enemy of Iraq since before Islam, because it helped the enemies of the Arabs and humanity,” he said.

“Syrian, Iranian and former Iraqi intelligence are cooperating with the Zarqawi group,” he said, referring to the Jordanian terrorist’s al Qaeda splinter group, which has claimed some of the bloodiest bombings and kidnappings in Iraq since the war.

“We want democracy and they want the dictatorship of Islam and clerical rule,” Mr. Shaalan said at the opening of two days of talks on the role of Iraq’s new national guard security force.

Iran and Syria deny any links with the Iraqi guerrillas.

“It seems [Mr. Shaalan] has a mission to say such things,” Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari told reporters. “I have always thought his remarks were because he was young, inexperienced and immature. But now I believe he has been ordered by his masters to say such things,” he said.

Iran’s role in the recent insurgency was discovered after the arrest last month of the leader of another group, Jaish Mohammed (Mohammed’s Army), which officials have said is linked to Zarqawi.

“When we arrested the commander of Jaish Mohammed, we discovered that key to terrorism is in Iran, which is the number-one enemy for Iraq,” Mr. Shaalan said.

While both Iran and Syria have rejected U.S. and Iraqi claims that they support Iraq’s insurgency, the State Department considers each a state sponsor of international terrorism.

“Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2003,” the department said on its annual “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report. “Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, individuals with ties to the Revolutionary Guard may have attempted to infiltrate southern Iraq, and elements of the Iranian Government have helped members of Ansar al-Islam transit and find safe haven in Iran.”

Syria, the department says, continues “to provide political and material support to Palestinian rejectionist groups,” but “has cooperated with the United States and other foreign governments against al-Qaida.”

Meanwhile in Iraq, campaigning got under way for the first free elections in the country’s history, with Mr. Allawi announcing his candidacy for the new legislature, which will write a new Iraqi constitution.

Surrounded by supporters in tribal garb, clerical turbans and Western-style suits, Mr. Allawi announced that he will lead a 240-member list of candidates, picked to highlight his appeal to Iraq’s diverse and fractious ethnic and religious groups.

The U.S.-backed prime minister pledged to work for national unity and move away from “religious and ethnic fanaticism.”

“By depending on God, and with a firm determination and based on strong confidence in the abilities of our people, we are capable of confronting the difficulties and challenges and of making a bright future for our honorable people,” he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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