|Monday, 3 November 2003|
Iraq snubs fresh invitation to Damascus meeting
DAMASCUS, Sunday (Reuters)
Iraq's neighbours meeting in Damascus on Saturday formally renewed their invitation to Iraq to join security talks, but the Iraqi foreign minister insisted the invitation had come too late for him to attend.
The foreign ministers' meeting, focussing on postwar regional stability and border security, came amid mounting U.S. concern that foreign guerrillas entering Iraq across porous borders are behind a wave of deadly attacks.
Late on Friday Syria had offered a last-minute invitation to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari to attend the talks but he refused, saying he had not received a proper invitation.
That dispute overshadowed the meeting's opening between the six countries bordering Iraq plus Egypt, and the seven ministers issued a second, formal invitation at the end of the day.
Zebari told Reuters in Baghdad: "It is too little, too late. It has come so late that it will be very difficult for me to get to the talks in Damascus tomorrow, given the logistical problems and the attitude of the Syrian government."
Zebari said he would discuss the invitation with Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council on Sunday, and would issue a statement afterwards, but he was almost certain not to attend.
Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Salem al-Sabah said the talks would only happen if Iraq was represented."Our position is clear that the official meeting will not take place unless Iraq attends," he said in remarks carried by the official Kuwaiti news agency KUNA.
Concern about the impact of Iraq's political future on their own security has driven Middle East nations to hold periodic meetings, despite decades of mutual mistrust and more recent divisions over the U.S.-led war that ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"Iraq's security situation is the most important topic of discussion at the meeting," said Syrian analyst Samir al-Taqi. "Because if it remains as it is, lacking security, it could be exported to the whole of the surrounding region. That is what frightens the neighbouring countries," he said.
Iraqi Foreign Ministry officials blamed Syria's apparent reluctance to invite Zebari on Syrian misgivings about being seen to recognise Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council.
The Arab League faced a similar dilemma in September, when Zebari was allowed to take Iraq's vacant seat at a ministerial meeting after hours of deliberation.
The officials said Damascus had also been stung by accusations from the Governing Council that many of the foreign militants entering Iraq had come across the border from Syria.
Meanwhile.a U.S. Chinook helicopter flying towards Baghdad airport was shot down on Sunday and there were at least 20 casualties, the U.S. Army said. A military spokesman said the downed helicopter had been carrying 32 to 35 people. He said rescue teams were in the area where the helicopter came down.
The helicopter was one of two Chinooks heading towards Baghdad airport carrying troops back from a rest and recreation trip.
The spokesman said he had no information on where the helicopter was downed.But locals in the flashpoint town of Falluja, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad, said a U.S. helicopter had come down nearby.
Earlier guerrillas killed two U.S.soldiers in Iraq amid warnings of further bloodshed.
Exactly six months after he declared an end to major combat in Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush vowed to stand firm and said leaving Iraq prematurely would strengthen "terrorists" he blamed for recent deadly suicide attacks.
Iraq's U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, warned that attackers would probably strike again before occupation forces or Iraqi police could track them down.
"They are dangerous and persistent and it will take time to root them out," Bremer told a news conference in Baghdad.
In the northern city of Mosul, a bomb was detonated outside a police station as two U.S. vehicles drove past on Saturday. The U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division said two of its soldiers were killed and two wounded.
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