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Iranian president affirms alliance in visit to Syria

Ahmadinejad warns 'enemies of the region' against military action.

July 20, 2007|Ziad Haidar | Special to The Times

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with regional allies in the Syrian capital Thursday, pledging a unified defense against any potential military confrontation with the United States and its allies.

The Iranian leader was here to congratulate Syrian President Bashar Assad on his election to a second seven-year term and to shore up an alliance of U.S. opponents that appears to be gaining strength in the Middle East.

"The enemies of this region should drop their plans to strike the interests of this region, for these enemies will burn by the fire of the people," Ahmadinejad said in a joint appearance with Assad. "Both countries are united in a frontier facing common enemies to the region."

Iran and the United States are at odds over Tehran's pursuit of nuclear technology. And both Iran and Syria back armed Islamist groups, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, that oppose Israel, a staunch U.S. ally.

In Damascus, Ahmadinejad reportedly also met with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Khaled Meshaal of Hamas and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah of Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian militant group.

Both Syria and Iran and the Islamist organizations they support have been gaining ground in elections and in battle against more moderate pro-Western opponents.

Ahmadinejad and Assad, appearing after a closed-door meeting, said they discussed regional conflicts, including political and military tensions in Lebanon and Palestinian infighting.

"We discussed the issues that are enforced by the conspiracies planned against the Middle East," Assad said at the joint news conference.

Though the two countries largely agree on policies in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and in Lebanon, they diverge on Iraq, which Assad on Thursday called a priority.

Syria sympathizes with the secular Sunnis of the Baath Party that was booted from power in Baghdad, whereas Iran supports the Shiite clerics and politicians now running the country.

Even within Syria's strictly controlled political climate, tensions over Iraq have burst to the surface. Several months ago a group of Syrian scholars scolded a visiting Iranian diplomat, accusing him of promoting a vision of Iraq that excluded large numbers of Iraqis.

Syria would like Iran to push the Iraqi government to review a law excluding former Baathists from government posts as well as to draw more Sunni tribes into the political process.

"Syria has shown interest in the establishment of a strong central government in Baghdad, while Iran is bargaining on a loose state dominated by Shiite clerics," said Marwan Kabalan, an analyst at Damascus University's Center for Strategic Studies. "Iran plans a weak and ... friendly Iraq, while Syria seeks a relatively strong secular Iraq with a clear Arabic identity."

Though Syria's secular regime and Iran's Shiite theocracy make odd bedfellows, some analysts see their partnership as a tactical alliance against the U.S. and Israel.

Their ties have deepened since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when Syria and Libya were the only Arab countries that backed Tehran. Now oil-rich Iran helps bolster Syria's economy, which faces U.S. sanctions.

Iranian investment in Syria exceeds $1 billion, said Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, Iran's ambassador to Syria. Half a million Iranian pilgrims visit holy sites in Syria each year.

"The occasion is a chance to coordinate on recent developments in the Middle East," Akhtari told The Times, referring to Thursday's meeting. "We always consult each other since the Islamic Revolution."

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