Syria's foreign minister offered Iraq's government support against militants in a ground-breaking visit to Baghdad on Sunday, as a suicide bombing and the kidnap of a top official added heat to sectarian frictions.
A junior minister from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's party was seized from his home by men in uniform, one of the most senior figures to fall victim to Baghdad's kidnapping frenzy. It was one of several attacks this week by camouflage-clad gunmen that cast doubts on the loyalties of Iraqi security forces.
A leading politician from the dominant Shi'ite bloc was assassinated on Saturday and a suicide bomber killed 22 poor Shi'ite labourers in an attack that a Sunni Islamist group said was revenge for a mass kidnap by suspected Shi'ite militiamen.
Talk is growing in Washington that President George W Bush may approach its regional adversaries Syria and Iran to help in efforts to quell an incipient civil war that has left 1,40,000 US troops with little immediate prospect of going home.
But on the first trip by a Syrian minister since Saddam Hussein was overthrown - and a rare visit by any senior Sunni Arab official to US-occupied Iraq - Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem stressed he was not coming to please foreign powers and repeated Damascus's position that American forces should go.
"I'm not coming to Iraq to satisfy some other person," he told a news briefing with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari.
Saying Syria condemned "terrorism", he added, "We support the elected government and national reconciliation ... We support the unity of Iraq and think that a timetable for pulling out US occupation forces from Iraq will reduce violence."
Zebari, whose government endorses US complaints that Syria and Iran aid Iraqi militants, has said Moualem's visit will be an acid test of neighbouring Sunni Arab states' will to help an Iraq now dominated by Shi'ite Muslims and backed by Washington.
"Iraq's security and stability is an issue for Syria and the neighbouring countries," Zebari said. "It's important they support our government and fight terrorism."
Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said officials would press Moualem to prevent Sunni Al-Qaeda fighters crossing its border, to cut off funding for Saddam's diehard Baathist followers and stop giving safe haven to his former aides.
Iran, for its part, denies funding and equipping fellow Shi'ite militants. An official source said President Jalal Talabani was expected to lead a delegation to Tehran shortly.
Syria, Iran Role?
Bush has played down suggestions, most prominently put by his ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that Syria and Iran should play a role in Iraq. But the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, may be preparing to make similar proposals in a report that Bush is expected to examine closely in his quest for a new approach.
Henry Kissinger, secretary of state during the Vietnam War and still said to be consulted by Bush, said outright victory in Iraq was impossible and called for an international conference.
"If you mean by clear military victory, an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets civil war ... and sectarian violence under control, I don't believe that is possible," he told the BBC.
The past week has seen sectarian tensions surface inside Maliki's national unity government, which has yet to make much headway on key issues six months after taking office on May 20.
The Shi'ite-led Interior Ministry has rejected assertions by the Sunni-run Higher Education Ministry that more than 60 people are still missing and some were tortured and killed after being snatched by men in police uniform at their office last week.
Few Iraqis put much faith in their US-trained security forces, which Washington hopes can stand up to the militants but which US commanders concede are heavily infiltrated by them.
On Sunday, Shi'ite Deputy Health Minister Ammar al-Saffar was taken from his home by gunmen in uniform who were led by three men in suits, a neighbour said. An Interior Ministry official said the gunmen arrived in six vehicles after sunset.