Iraq withdraws envoy to Syria

BAGHDAD: Iraq sparked a new diplomatic crisis with Syria on Tuesday by ordering home its ambassador to Damascus and demanding the handover of two men alleged to have ordered a deadly truck bombing in Baghdad.

The move came just hours before Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombings, which killed 95 people and left nearly 600 wounded.

It throws into disarray recent efforts to improve ties between the neighbouring states, which had been weak under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"The cabinet demands the Syrian government hand over Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan," said a statement quoting government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh, announcing the ambassador's recall.

"The cabinet decided to ask that they be handed over for their direct role in carrying out the terrorist operation," it added.

On Sunday, Iraq aired a video showing a former police chief confessing to a the bombing last Wednesday at the finance ministry, one of two attacks in the capital.

The man said he had received orders from his Baathist boss Farhan, who along with Ahmed, also a Baathist leader loyal to Saddam, was based in Syria according to his video confession.

The statement announcing the recall of the Iraqi ambassador, who was only appointed six months ago, went further and pointed the finger at Syria for harbouring insurgents.

"We also demand that Syria hand over every person wanted for committing murders and crimes against Iraqis and to kick out all terrorist organisations that use Syria as a base to launch and plan such operations against Iraqi people," it said.

But a statement on an Islamic website claimed the bombings were carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda insurgent group.

"By the grace of God, the sons of the Islamic State of Iraq launched a new attack on the wounded heart of Baghdad to destroy the bastions of faithlessness and the citadels of the atheism of the apostate Safavid (Shiite) government," it said.

The bombings at the finance and foreign ministries culminated in the worst day of violence seen in Iraq for 18 months.

In the immediate aftermath, Syria condemned the atrocities, with the foreign ministry expressing "deep sorrow at the loss of a large number of victims" and reaffirming "our support for everything which upholds Iraq's security, integrity and stability."

During a visit to Baghdad on April 22, Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri rebuffed Iraqi journalists who alleged that Baathist boss Ahmed was in Syria and questioned the premier if he was prepared to take action against him.

"I don't know that name and I've never heard about him," Otri said.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited Damascus only last week, when the two countries agreed to reinforce security cooperation, after the top US commander in Iraq said Syria's role in fighters crossing the border remained a concern.

Maliki travelled to Syria just days after a senior US military delegation was in Damascus to discuss regional security issues, reportedly including Iraq, a meeting that irked some in Baghdad.

He and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad discussed strengthening cooperation, over border security, and Maliki "confirmed that having a strong relationship with Syria was in the mutual interests of both peoples," his office said.

"The two sides discussed expanding cooperation over borders, oil, gas, water, transport, and working to increase trade between the two countries by establishing free-trade zones," it said.