- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister pressed a U.N. envoy Sunday on the need for an international tribunal to bring Syrian-based bombing suspects to trial, as Damascus refused to hand over those it called political refugees.

The dispute, triggered by devastating suicide truck bombings on government ministries in Baghdad last month, threatens to unravel steps toward better ties between the one-time adversaries.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has bluntly accused Syria of betrayal and of harboring killers, briefed the special U.N. envoy, Ad Melkert, on the intensifying dispute, Iraqi state TV reported.

Both nations have recalled their ambassadors in a serious setback to relations that had just begun to improve after years of animosity during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Iraq says two wanted members of Saddam’s Baath Party who fled to Syria at the start of the war planned and financed the Aug. 19 attacks. Syria, demanding evidence, has refused to hand them over.

On Sunday, Syria said through a government-run newspaper that it would not hand over people it considers political refugees.

“Syria never handed over people who took shelter from the threat of injustice, arbitrary acts and death,” the Al-Thawra newspaper said.

It said that if Damascus had followed such a policy, Iraq’s prime minister and president — both of whom lived as dissidents in Syria during Saddam’s rule — would not have fared well.

“They all know what their fate would have been if Syria had such political morals,” said the paper, referring to Mr. al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.

One of the Iraqis linked to the August bombings is Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed, who was high up in the Baath Party and has been near the top of Iraq’s most-wanted list for several years. The other suspect is Satam Farhan.

Syria and Iraq restored diplomatic relations in November 2006, ending a 24-year break that began when Damascus accused Baghdad 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.

The dispute over last month’s bombings is straining relations again.

The attacks devastated the foreign and finance ministries in Baghdad and killed about 100 people. They also severely shook confidence in Mr. al-Maliki’s government, which wants to demonstrate it can guarantee security after the June withdrawal of American troops from urban areas.

Mr. Al-Maliki also is hoping to hold on to his job after January’s national elections and had touted recent security improvements in his public appearances. He has faced criticism over the security lapses revealed by the attacks — one suspect said in a televised confession that the bombers got past checkpoints by paying bribes.

Because of the international element to the case, Iraq has asked the U.N. Security Council to investigate and set up a special court to try suspects. A U.N. spokesman said Thursday that the request was expected to be distributed to the 15 council members shortly.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Friday that such investigations usually are biased and have “brought catastrophes for us.”

Solutions to the region’s problems, he said, “should come from within the region.”

Syria also could find itself before an international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, though the court has yet to issue any indictments.

After the Baghdad attacks, Mr. al-Maliki ordered reinforcements to the Syrian border to shore up defenses against fighters crossing into Iraq.

The cross-border flow of fighters and weapons is helping fuel violence that continues to plague remaining insurgent strongholds such as the northern city of Mosul, where five people were killed Sunday.

A gunman broke into a house in the eastern part of the city, killing a 3-year-old girl and her grandmother before fleeing, said a provincial police official and a doctor at the city’s hospital. Neither wanted to be identified because each one is not authorized to speak to reporters.

Gunmen also attacked checkpoints in the city, killing three policemen, police said.

In southeast Baghdad, a car parked near a security checkpoint exploded, killing one person and wounding five civilians, police said.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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