Iraq Halts Flights to and From Syria

The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 31, 2007; 5:35 PM

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.

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