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US says 100 fighters a month enter Iraq from Syria

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, Nov 20 (Reuters) Up to 100 foreign fighters cross into Iraq from Syria every month, the US military said today, as Syria's foreign minister held talks with Iraqi leaders to pledge his country's help in tackling insurgents.

US and Iraqi officials have long accused Damascus of doing little to stem the flow of Islamist fighters and weapons across its long, porous border. Syrian officials say sealing the border is impossible and that Iraq must do more to patrol its side.

''We don't know how much they (Syria) are assisting this effort, but we don't know how much they are trying to preclude it either,'' US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem met Iraqi officials, including Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, on the second day of a landmark visit. Iraq and Syria severed ties when Syria sided with Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

It was also the first time a Syrian minister has visited Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 and is a rare visit by any senior Arab official. It comes amid increased talk of diplomatic efforts to involve Iraq's neighbours Syria and Iran in helping to end the violence ravaging the country.

Bush's allies have urged him recently to open the door to talks with Tehran and Damascus to seek their help in stabilising Iraq, where insurgent violence and sectarian attacks are threatening to tear the country apart.

But Moualem, who said yesterday that a timetable for a US troop withdrawal would be the best way to reduce violence, said he was not in Iraq to ''please the United States''.

''I am nobody's godfather and not a mediator for the United States,'' he told a joint news conference after talks with powerful Iraqi Shi'ite Islamist leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

''In this current situation there is no dialogue between Syria and the United States,'' he said.

But there is growing talk in Washington that the Iraq Study Group, which is examining strategic options in Iraq, will advocate greater US cooperation with Syria and Iran as the administration considers a change in course on the war.

Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus and says it will not authorise higher-level contacts because of Syria's suspected role in supporting violent militants, Iraqi insurgents and opponents of Lebanon's government.

''We still see foreign fighters coming, between 70 and 100 a month coming accross the Syrian border into Iraq,'' Caldwell said, figures in line with the past year.

He said US and Iraqi soldiers had killed 425 foreign fighters so far this year and captured 670. Twenty percent were Syrian, a similar number Egyptian, and the rest came mainly from Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

REUTERS SP KP2148

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