Disputing an assertion by the top U.S. general in Iraq, Syria's ambassador to Washington on Wednesday denied that his government allows foreign fighters to cross the Syrian border into Iraq.
Ambassador Imad Moustapha said his government has been cooperating with the U.S. on the foreign fighter problem, which has persisted for years, and that Syria wants to assist the U.S. in its 2010 troop withdrawal.
"We want to help the Obama administration have a very successful, smooth withdrawal from Iraq," Moustapha said, "so that lives can be saved and so that Iraq can continue to evolve and prosper, because a secure, stable, prosperous Iraq is a matter of paramount strategic importance for Syria."
He made his remarks in a presentation at American University's School of International Service.
The ambassador dismissed as propaganda any assertions that his country is fomenting violence in Iraq. He acknowledged that foreign fighters have managed to enter Iraq, but asserted that they do not account for more than 2 percent or 3 percent of the total number of insurgents in the country.
"It's mainly home grown," Moustapha said. "Do they exist _ the foreign insurgents? Yes, they do. Do we allow them to cross into Iraq? Of course we don't, regardless of public statements (to the contrary). I'm sorry I can't disclose everything but I will say it this way: We are actually working with the Obama administration on this issue. We are actually cooperating with the U.S. military on this issue."
U.S. commanders in Iraq long have complained of malign Syrian and Iranian influence in Iraq, although the severity of their public statements about Syria's role in cross-border infiltration by foreign fighters has varied.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon on Oct. 1, "We've had foreign fighter facilitation through Syria. We've had some old Baath Party elements who live in Syria continue to discuss on the Internet and other areas about increasing violence in Iraq. So those are areas that we know for sure are outwardly causing problems."
Odierno went on to say that in recent months "we've seen a much lower level of foreign fighters coming into Iraq." And he added, "What I do know is that the facilitation networks that operate in Syria feed both Afghanistan and Iraq."
In August, Odierno said he was "a little bit concerned" about Syria's role in the foreign fighter flow.
Relations between Syria and Iraq, which were stable during the period that Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, have soured.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has blamed Syria-based senior members of Saddam's outlawed Baath Party, along with al-Qaida, for planning massive bombings on Aug. 19 in Baghdad that killed more than 100 people. Syria says Iraq has provided no proof, rejecting its requests for extradition.
Al-Maliki was angered when the Obama administration sent officials to Syria in August to discuss security on the Iraq border without inviting the Iraqis.