DAMASCUS: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told visiting Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki that better ties between the two nations would be strengthened by the formation of a new Iraqi government.

Assad said he was happy that improving ties between Baghdad and Damascus "will be strengthened and completed with the formation of the Iraqi government soon," according to a statement from Maliki's office.

"Our attitude about the formation of the government is clear: the solution must be Iraqi," Assad was quoted as saying.

"Iraq has a great history, no one can order" it what to do, the Syrian leader said. "Iraqis own that decision," he added.

The statement was issued after Maliki arrived in Damascus and held talks with Assad, following a year-long row over massive truck bombings in Baghdad that Iraq blamed on Syria.

It said the two leaders "discussed the improving of relations between the two countries to serve the joint interest and strengthen security and stability in the area."

Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain Shahrestani said the two sides had signed an agreement for an oil pipeline from Iraq through Syria to Mediterranean seaports for the export of crude during Maliki's visit.

He did not give any details in his comments to Iraq's state television, but the two countries have been discussing construction of two pipelines with a combined capacity of 2.75 million barrels of oil per day.

On Sunday, Iraq's ambassador to Damascus resumed his duties, more than a year after ties were strained following massive truck bombings in Baghdad. Iraq said the attacks were plotted in Syria, a charge denied by Damascus.

"What we have between us is special ... Iraq and Syria cannot get by without each other," the Iraqi premier was quoted as saying.

"The relations between Syria and Iraq are different from relations with other countries," he said.

"We obtained all that we wanted from this trip in mending relations," Maliki said on his flight home.

He also met with Syrian counterpart Mohammed Naji Otri during the trip, which comes two weeks after his main rival for the premiership, ex-premier Iyad Allawi, visited Damascus.

His visit came as he seeks support for his bid to retain the premiership after March 7 elections in which his Shiite bloc finished a narrow second behind Allawi's Sunni-dominated Iraqiya group.

"We have made good progress," the Iraqi premier said in the statement, adding: "The government should be formed on correct bases, we are working to make it a balanced government.

"Things are moving toward a real partnership between all of the blocs, and the alliances have started to open dialogue with each other.

"Only Iraqis are responsible on the decision of forming the government and our demand from our brothers is for support for this," said Maliki.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose radical movement controls 40 seats in parliament, has thrown its support behind Maliki, whose party still falls short of the parliamentary majority needed to form a government.

Maliki needs the support of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, another Shiite group, headed by Ammar al-Hakim, to forge a majority.

He hopes that Hakim, who has close ties with Syria, will soften his opposition to his candidacy.

In Washington meanwhile, the US State Department welcomed Wednesday's talks.

"We are certainly supportive of the dialogue that has occurred today between Syria and Iraq," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.

"They should have constructive relations so that... each can play an appropriate role... to help reintegrate Iraq into the region," Crowley added.

Channel NewsAsia - New Iraq govt will help Syria ties says Syrian president - channelnewsasia.com