BAGHDAD — Iraq and Syria recalled their envoys Tuesday, deepening a diplomatic crisis sparked by Iraqi accusations that Damascus is sheltering insurgents who orchestrated massive truck bombings in Baghdad.
The bilateral flare-up threw into disarray extensive efforts made in the past year to boost ties between the countries, which had been weak under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein but had recently been improving.
The row was triggered by Baghdad alleging that Syria was harbouring two Baathist leaders who plotted one of two devastating attacks that killed 95 people and wounded about 600 in the Iraqi capital last week.
"The cabinet demands the Syrian government hand over Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, announcing that Iraq's ambassador would return to Baghdad.
"The cabinet decided to ask that they be handed over for their direct role in carrying out the terrorist operation," the statement added, referring to "the terrorist crime committed by Baathists and Takfiri (extremists)."
Takfiri is a term used by the Iraqi government to refer to Al-Qaeda members.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged Syria to "act correctly" and stop giving shelter to those seeking to destabilise Iraq.
"We want to reach agreement with (Syria) to get rid of those who are sheltering there," he said in a statement. "They should consider how to be good neighbours."
The bombings at the ministries of finance and foreign affairs six days ago culminated in the worst day of violence seen in Iraq in 18 months.
On Sunday, Iraq aired a video showing a former police chief confessing to the bombing at the finance ministry. A second massive truck bomb exploded minutes later at the ministry of foreign affairs.
The policeman said he had received orders from his Baathist boss Farhan, who along with Ahmed, also a Baathist leader loyal to Saddam, was based in Syria according to his video testimony.
"We also demand that Syria hand over every person wanted for committing murders and crimes against Iraqis and to kick out all terrorist organisations that use Syria as a base to launch and plan such operations against Iraqi people," Dabbagh added.
Syria retaliated within hours by announcing that it was ordering home its ambassador to Baghdad.
"In response to the recalling by the Iraqi government of the Iraqi ambassador for consultation, Syria has decided to recall its ambassador to Baghdad," a foreign ministry statement said.
"Syria categorically rejects the statement of the spokesman of the Iraqi government regarding the bloody attacks in Baghdad last Wednesday," it said, adding that, "Syria had forcefully denounced this terrorist act which left victims among the Iraqi people."
During a visit to Baghdad on April 22, Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri rebuffed Iraqi journalists who alleged that Baathist boss Ahmed was in Syria and questioned the premier if he was prepared to take action against him.
"I don't know that name and I've never heard about him," Otri said.
Premier Maliki visited Damascus only last week, when the two countries agreed to reinforce security cooperation, after the top US commander in Iraq said Syria's role in fighters crossing the border remained a concern.
Maliki travelled to Syria just days after a senior US military delegation was in Damascus to discuss regional security issues, reportedly including Iraq, a meeting that irked some in Baghdad.
He and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad discussed strengthening cooperation, over border security, and Maliki "confirmed that having a strong relationship with Syria was in the mutual interests of both peoples," his office said.
Baghdad's accusations came shortly before Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for last week's devastating attacks, naming the ministries of foreign affairs, finance and defence among its targets.
"By the grace of God, the sons of the Islamic State of Iraq launched a new attack on the wounded heart of Baghdad to destroy the bastions of faithlessness and the citadels of the atheism of the apostate Safavid (Shiite) government," said a statement on the shamikh.net site.
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