- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - The prime ministers of Syria and Iraq discussed ways to prevent militants from crossing the porous border between the two countries Tuesday during the highest level Syrian visit to Iraq in almost three decades, an Iraqi government spokesman said.

Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari’s two-day visit to Baghdad is aimed at easing long-standing tensions between the two neighbors that flared last year when U.S. forces raided a Syrian village over the border from Iraq in an operation that targeted militants.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said al-Otari’s discussions with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki showed “great optimism” and focused on preventing militants from operating in either country.

Syria has been accused of allowing Sunni insurgents who often target U.S. and Iraqi forces to use its territory to move in and out of Iraq and use Syria as a safe haven, charges Damascus denies.

Last October, helicopter-borne U.S. soldiers struck a Syrian border village in an attack that left eight people dead. Washington said the raid was part of a campaign against foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq and targeted a top al-Qaida figure. Syria has asked for proof and said the attack killed eight civilians.

Baghdad said it had not been informed in advance about the raid and condemned the action.

Despite the flare-up, relations have recently improved between the two countries as part of efforts by the post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq to reach out to other Arab nations.

Syria and Iraq restored diplomatic relations in Nov. 2006, ending a 24-year break that began when Damascus accused Iraq of inciting riots in Syria in 1982.

At the time of their break, the countries were ruled by rival factions of the Baath Party. Syria also sided with non-Arab Iran during its 1980-88 war with Iraq, further aggravating relations.

Al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi spokesman, said al-Otari and al-Maliki also discussed the issue of Saddam’s Baath party members who had fled to Syria and who have been a source of concern for Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the Iraq military announced Tuesday that security troops arrested four suspects implicated in gangland-style heists over the weekend that killed at least seven people in an old jewelers’ market in the Iraqi capital.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi said efforts were under way to arrest other members of a gang believed involved in Saturday’s attack.

Al-Mousawi also said four suspects implicated in a recent attack on Baghdad’s protected Green Zone have been arrested Tuesday in eastern Baghdad, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood, but provided no details.

Militants shelled the Green Zone late Saturday but there were no reports of casualties or damage. It was the first such bombardment in more than three months.

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