* Tension “behind us”, Maliki’s aide says
* Talks revive on oil pipeline project
* Maliki too strong a contender for Syria to ignore
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS, Sept 14 (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday met an aide to Iraq’s acting prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, signalling a thaw in ties between the two men that could boost Maliki’s chances of forming a government.
“We affirmed the depth of strategic ties between Syria and Baghdad,” Abdul Hamid al-Zuhairi, a senior official in Maliki’s Dawa party, told reporter.
“There have been (anti-Syrian) statements by Iraqi figures, but that’s behind us now,” said Zuhairi, who headed a delegation that included a minister of state loyal to Maliki.
Relations between Maliki and Syria’s ruling hierarchy plunged after Maliki, as prime minister, accused Syria in August last year of sheltering two people who he said were behind bomb attacks in Baghdad that killed 100 people. He withdrew Iraq’s ambassador from Damascus.
Having the backing of both Iran and Syria, two regional powerbrokers with large stakes in who rules Iraq, should boost Maliki’s chances of forming a government in Iraq, still without an administration six months after an inconclusive election.
The official Syrian news agency said Assad had said Syria would back any government deal that preserves Iraq as a single state, reflecting its concern that any secession by Iraq’s Kurds could stoke separatism among its own Kurdish minority.
Syria has a 600-km (375-mile) border with Iraq and hosts hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. It has not hidden its dissatisfaction with Maliki, who has remained in office as acting premier since the election, and its backing for Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite.
Allawi has been a frequent visitor to Damascus. His list, which is backed by Sunni politicians, won most seats but he has not managed to secure enough support, especially from Shi’ite Islamist groups, to form a government.
Unlike Maliki, Allawi does not have support from Iran, which has an alliance with Syria. Both countries have gained influence in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power and ushered in sectarian strife.
Syrian government media have unusually been highlighting links with Iraq in recent weeks, as well as technical meetings on a project to re-activate an oil pipeline from the Iraqi oil centre of Kirkuk to Syria’s Banias terminal.
The project, which would net Syria valuable hard currency, has been on the drawing board for at least three years.
Maliki has insisted that work on the pipeline must be accompanied by progress on the security issue.
A diplomat in Damascus said Syria’s secular leadership could work with Maliki, despite past differences and his religious leanings — Maliki belongs to Dawa, a party founded by Iraqi Shi’ite theologian Mohammad Baqer al-Sadr, whom Saddam executed in 1980.
“With American forces leaving, it’s reaching the point where everyone is starting to want a government in Iraq, regardless of who heads it,” the diplomat said.
“All Maliki has to do is to keep waiting.” (Editing by Kevin Liffey)