Iraq, Syria Restore Relations

BAGHDAD -- Iraq and neighboring Syria agreed to restore full diplomatic relations Tuesday in an accord in which Syria accepted that U.S. troops should stay as long as the Iraqi government needs them.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem was making the first visit by a Syrian minister to Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The two countries severed ties when Damascus sided with Iran in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

The agreement to reopen their embassies in Damascus and Baghdad comes amid mounting calls for U.S. President George W. Bush to open talks with adversaries Syria and Iran as his administration considers a change of course in Iraq.

U.S. and Iraqi officials accuse Tehran of backing Shiite militias and Syria of supporting Sunni insurgents. They have long complained that Syria has done too little to seal its border to stem the flow of foreign Islamist fighters.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani will fly to Tehran on Saturday and visit Damascus soon, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said, denying a report that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would join a summit in Iran this week.

The two governments agreed to restore full diplomatic ties, reopening their embassies in Damascus and Baghdad. An agreement in principle was struck some months ago. Ambassadors with full rank will be named and flags raised over embassies shortly.

"We hope to follow this step with real and practical procedures so we can have an official channel for continuous dialogue," Zebari said at a joint news conference with Moualem.

Iraq has said it expects to set up a joint security committee with Syria and improve trade.

In the document, Syria and Iraq agreed on the need for U.S.-led forces to stay in Iraq until they were no longer needed, after which they would be gradually withdrawn.

"The Iraqi government explained its position on the matter and that the presence of these forces is dependent on the approval of the Iraqi government," Zebari said.

Moualem had earlier called for the setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of the 140,000 U.S. troops.

After meeting Iraqi leaders Monday, Moualem pledged Syria's cooperation in tackling violence that has raised the specter of civil war, saying it was prepared to work "hand in hand to achieve the security of brother Iraq."

Zebari said there was no agreement for a three-way summit in Tehran that included Syria but that President Talabani had received an invitation to visit Damascus soon.

"Syria's foreign minister invited the president to visit Damascus and we hope that it will be achieved in the nearest opportunity," Zebari said.