- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria — Iraq’s neighbors opened a conference yesterday on the impact of the U.S.-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein, but Baghdad’s interim government — insulted by a last-minute invitation — snubbed the talks and vowed to reject any decisions made there.

The U.S.-appointed Governing Council had wanted to attend the meeting of Iraqi border nations to complain about cross-border infiltration of militants, including from Syria.

The two-day gathering aims to discuss the impact of the war in Iraq amid escalating violence there. It brings together foreign ministers from Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, plus politically influential Egypt, the largest Arab country.

Already divided over the U.S.-led war that ousted Saddam, members of the group had argued over whether to invite the interim Iraqi government to the meeting at all. Some worried the Iraqi presence at the meeting would divert the focus from discussing the war’s impact to getting neighboring states directly involved in the process of restoring Iraq’s security and stability.

Syria and Iran had strongly opposed the war, while Kuwait was the launching pad for the invading U.S. forces. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt are key U.S. allies in the region.

Apparently keen to make the meeting of Iraq’s neighbors a success, Syria late Friday extended a last-minute invitation to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to come to Damascus for a session today.

Yesterday’s first session was to have focused on whether Iraq’s representative would be allowed to participate, said Bushra Kanafani, spokeswoman of the Syrian Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Zebari called the Syrian invitation “mysterious and ambiguous.”

“With the absence of a clear invitation by the Syrian government, it is very difficult for Iraq to participate in this meeting and we will not abide by or accept any decisions taken by this meeting,” Mr. Zebari told a news conference in Baghdad a few hours before the meeting was to start.

A Syrian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Iraq’s decision to stay away should clear the air, “consequently facilitating the meeting’s mission.”

Iraq did not attend the group’s previous meetings in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, all held before the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam.

The United States has accused Syria of not doing enough to prevent the infiltration of foreign fighters through its eastern border into Iraq to attack U.S.-led coalition forces.

U.S. officials have said foreign fighters may be behind a recent upsurge in attacks against coalition forces, international aid agencies and Iraqis in Iraq.

“The terrorists are coming from all the borders, including Syria,” Mr. Zebari said.

“What is required of neighboring countries that care about the unity and sovereignty and security of Iraq is to back Iraqi efforts to bolster security and stability and combating terrorism and barring terrorists from crossing over and protecting the border,” he said.

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