- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 15 (UPI) — Syrian Foreign Ministry denied that President Bashar Assad was set to visit Iran on Wednesday.

A ministry statement said recent reports about "an official date for President Bashar Assad's visit to Teheran were not accurate." The statement did not say whether Assad's visit was postponed or cancelled. The visit was announced in Tehran last weekend but the official Syrian News Agency did not have a similar announcement.

The ministry statement said Syria and Iran maintain "coordination and consultation in all matters of joint interests as well as regional and international developments."

Iranian diplomatic sources in Damascus did not give reasons for the postponement or cancellation of Assad's expected visit to Tehran but expressed "surprise" for Syria's denial of the visit's set date. The sources refused to comment the Syrian Foreign Ministry statement.

In Beirut, an Iranian source said differences in opinion between Syria and Iran regarding Iraq might be behind denial of Assad's visit.

Assad was supposedly set to meet Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and other high-ranking officials in Tehran Wednesday to discuss the possible U.S. war on Iraq.

On Tuesday, Iranian diplomatic sources in Damascus told United Press International that Iran, Syria and Turkey, which share borders with Iraq, were gravely concerned about the possible results of American military intervention to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

A Western diplomatic source in the Syrian capital said though the three

states oppose U.S. military intervention in Iraq, they have different views on regime change in Baghdad.

Syria stresses that any change should come from inside Iraq and opposes the mooted possibility of an American occupation regime in Baghdad. Were the United States to impose such a rule, Damascus would find itself surrounded by pro-U.S. regimes in Jordan, Turkey and Israel.

Iran, the Western source said, hopes to see the Shiite Arabs, who make up about 55 percent of Iraq's population, achieve majority rule.

But the Iranian sources stressed that Tehran would not attempt to set up a separate Shiite state in southern Iraq, homeland of these Arabs who share the same religious faith as the Iranians. Iran, the sources said, wished to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity.

While Turkey does not oppose the establishment of a pro-U.S. regime in Iraq, it wishes to protect its important trade with Iraq and to prevent the emergence of an Iraqi Kurdish state in the north of the country. Such an entity could have a destabilizing effect on adjacent southeastern Turkey that is also populated by Kurds.

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