Thursday, July 19, 2007

'Iran must support Palestinian struggle'
Associated Press, THE JERUSALEM POST Jul. 19, 2007


Iran's role in the Middle East is "to support the armed struggle of the Palestinian people," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ramdan-Abdullah Shalakh during a meeting in Damascus on Thursday.

Ahmadinejad stressed the importance of unity between all Palestinian factions.

The Iranian president also called on all countries in the region to be vigilant of Israel's attempts to revive itself following its "failure" of the Second Lebanon War.

During his visit to Syria, Ahmadinejad is also scheduled to hold talks with his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad. The talks are expected to focus on the Iraq situation, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, where both Teheran and Damascus wield influence.

Ahmadinejad, accompanied by a high-level delegation, was greeted at Damascus airport by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem ahead of the official reception by Assad at the People's Palace later Thursday. Assad was sworn in Tuesday for a second seven-year term.

Syria is Iran's closest Arab ally. The two countries have had close relations since 1980 when Syria sided with Persian Iran against Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Both countries face US accusations of fueling violence in Iraq, supporting Lebanon's Hizbullah guerrilla group, which Washington labels a terrorist organization. They are also accused of supporting anti-Israeli Palestinian groups, like the Islamic Hamas.

In addition, Iran is locked in a diplomatic confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad's visit posed a snub to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has called on Syria to cut its relations with Iran as a precondition to restart peace process, deadlocked since 2000.

Syrian officials have shunned Olmert's demand and stressed that Syria's relations with Iran are a matter of sovereignty.

As in past visits, Ahmadinejad was expected to also meet in Damascus with leaders of other Syria-based radical Palestinian factions and Hizbullah. He was also expected to visit the shrine of Sayyedah Zeinab, the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad.

Syria's official news agency SANA Thursday underlined the need for closer cooperation between the two countries "to ensure the factors of security and stability in the region."

The two have growing economic ties, with the annual two-way trade estimated at about $200 million. Iranian companies have invested more than $1 billion in Syria, in sectors such as power generation, automobiles, cement and agriculture, Syrian newspapers reported Thursday.

Syria's most important exports to Iran are cotton and textiles, olive oil and fruits. Iranian exports to Syria are mainly industrial equipment, spare parts, chemicals and locomotives.

More than half a million Iranian tourists visit Syria annually, touring Shi'ite Muslim religious sites.

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