Iraq halts flights to Syria in preparation for crackdown


Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 10:47 p.m.

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq indefinitely halted all flights to and from Syria and closed a border crossing with Iran as the government prepares for a new security crackdown aimed at crushing violence in the capital and surrounding regions, a member of parliament and an airport official said Wednesday.

The airport official said flights to and from Syria would be canceled for at least two weeks and that service had been interrupted on Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal the information.

Hassan al-Sunneid, a legislator and member of the parliament Defense and Security Committee, said the move "was in preparation for the security plan. The state will decide when the flights will resume."

The actions were seen as a signal to both countries not to interfere in Iraq's affairs as U.S. and Iraqi forces prepare for the major crackdown on armed groups in the capital.

Syria is believed to be harboring former Baath party officials who support the Sunni insurgency and has been accused of allowing foreign fighters to slip across its border with Iraq. And U.S. officials have complained that Iran smuggles weapons to Shiite extremists who have killed Americans and provides Shiite militia with training and support.

Syrian authorities on Wednesday denied reports arising elsewhere that it had halted Iraqi Airways flights but said it would bar landings by Iraqi airliners lacking safety requirements or those arriving without advance permission.

The official Syrian news agency, SANA, said the measure was agreed to last week by the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority after Syrian technical teams found that some Iraqi planes did not meet safety codes, or that they entered Syrian airspace without notice or permission from Syrian authorities.

Iraqi Airways is now the only airline linking the Syrian and Iraqi capitals.

The U.N. says about one million Iraqis have fled to Syria, which has become the refuge of choice because of its relaxed entry regulations for Arabs, the relatively low cost of living and availability of schools and health care.

Al-Sunneid refused to confirm reports that Syrian border crossings also would be closed, saying only that "more decisions would be taken."

He said the Sheeb border crossing with Iran "also was closed in preparation for the (security) plan."

Iraq said last week that closures of Iranian crossings involved the border checkpoints at Sheeb, in Maysan province, and the Shalamjaa border checkpoint in Basra province. Authorities in Baghdad said the two crossings had been shut down ahead of the Ashoura festivities, the Shiite ceremony in which tens of thousands of pilgrims — many from Iran — descend the Shiite holy city of Karbala. The festival reached its climax Tuesday.

Iranian television said Sunday that Iran had closed several border crossings with Iraq ahead of Ashoura, citing a decision by the government in Tehran. It said the crossings were closed to "contain the large number of pilgrims" bound for Karbala without "legal documents."

Meanwhile, car bombs struck mostly Shiite targets in Baghdad on Wednesday, and the bodies of three Sunni professors and a student were found days after they were seized while leaving their campus in a Shiite part of the city.

At least 43 people were reported killed across Iraq, including a U.S. soldier.

Maamoun Abdel-Hadi said he was standing with a friend near his car when a mortar shell fell on the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad. The area was hit by nine mortar shells that damaged houses, shops and streets, killing six people and wounding 20, police and hospital officials said.

"We fell on the ground ... I saw four wounded persons lying on the ground and screaming for help. We put them in the car and rushed them to the hospital," Abdel-Hadi said. "We are peaceful people who have nothing to do with any militias or armed groups. What is the guilt of innocent children, women and men who were walking in the street?"

Jamal Ahmed mournfully examined his Mitsubishi car that had been burned in the attack.

"Repairing my car will cost me a fortune, yet I thank God because I am safe and unhurt," he said.

The mortar attack struck about 2 p.m., hours after car bombs hit Shiite targets elsewhere in the capital in what has become a common pattern in the violence plaguing Baghdad.

One car bomb targeted an area near a market in central Baghdad where people can catch minibuses to predominantly Shiite neighborhoods, including the Sadr City slum. Four people were killed and 12 were wounded, police said.

Another car packed with explosives blew up in the religiously mixed neighborhood of Maamoun in western Baghdad at about the same time, killing two civilians and wounding three others, police said.

A car bomb also struck a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Baghdad after the driver parked near a currency exchange office, then walked away, killing two people and wounding 10, police said.

The shop's owner said the attacker came in to ask permission to park the car and exchange some money.

"A seemingly normal person parked this car and told us that he would not be long," said the owner, who identified himself as Abu Talal. "When that person disappeared for more than 20 minutes, we tried to call the police but the car exploded."

Shop owners often insist that motorists get permission before parking their cars due to the frequent car bombings in the capital.

Insurgents have launched several bombings in the capital in recent weeks as they seek to maximize the number of people killed before U.S. and Iraqi troops launch a neighborhood-by-neighorhood sweep of the capital. Iraqi authorities have promised to crack down on Sunni insurgents as well as Shiite militia violence that has spiraled since the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

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