Iraqi PM to Syria to discuss enhanced cooperation in first visit in over a decade

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister spoke with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Sunday in the first such trip to the war-torn country since the start of the 12-year-long conflict.

Iraq and Syria have maintained close relations for years, even after many Arab countries withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus and Syria’s membership in the 22-member Arab League was suspended due to the crackdown. protesters in 2011.

Assad received Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who led a high-ranking delegation, at the presidential palace in Damascus. They discussed mutual relations and cooperation between the two neighboring countries, among other issues, according to the Syrian president’s office.

Al-Sudani’s office said in a statement that the discussions focused on ways to expand cooperation in trade, economy, transport, tourism, the fight against climate change and working together to fight terrorism.

Security cooperation against extremist groups was expected to be high on the agenda of the two-day visit. The two countries, where Iran enjoys broad influence, have a common border 600 kilometers (373 miles) long. In June 2014, the Islamic State group declared the establishment of a self-proclaimed “caliphate”, a traditional model of Islamic rule, in large areas under its control in Iraq and Syria.

After a year-long campaign that left tens of thousands dead in both countries, IS was defeated in Iraq in 2017 and in March 2019 in Syria. In recent years, Syrian government forces have regained control of much of Syria with the help of Russia and Iran.

Earlier this year, Syria’s membership in the Arab League was restored and Assad attended the Arab summit held in Saudi Arabia in May.

Al-Sudani was invited to visit Damascus during a trip by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to Baghdad last month.

The US has a presence in both Syria and Iraq and Syrian officials have called for the withdrawal of US troops from the country which first arrived in 2015.

Every day, there are at least 900 US troops in Syria, along with an undisclosed number of contractors trying to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State group. US special operations forces also move in and out of the country, but are usually in small teams and not included in the official tally.

US-led coalition forces have officially ended their combat mission in Iraq, but continue to play an advisory role to Iraqi forces in the fight against the extremist group Islamic State.

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