The surprise death of Syria's President Hafez Assad buries a marathon feud with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein over leadership of the nationalist camp in the Arab world.
The two men, who set out as members of the same Baath party founded on dreams of Arab unity and have ruled with an iron grip, never met publicly as presidents and even set their armies against each other in the 1991 Gulf War.
Historians record they could barely stand to be in the same room as each other. And they did so only three times.
The Arab world was just not big enough for the both of them.
Whatever the causes -- the Baath party, Iran, the Kurds, the Palestinians, Lebanon, the Gulf War -- the two men always seemed to end up on opposing sides.
Even in death, the Baghdad regime maintained a chilly silence on Assad's passing, which was reported by the media without comment.
The bitter rivalry can be traced back to 1966 when the pan-Arab aspirations of the Baath party, founded in Syria in 1947, fell apart in an ideological battle for control.
Saddam, unwilling to accept Damascus's authority over a new "national command" covering the Arab world, initiated a meeting of the Iraqi wing. It proved a watershed, dividing ineluctably the branches in Iraq and Syria.
A unified Baath with a regional command in each country ceased to exist.
Ironically, or perhaps Saddam suspected Assad's imminent death, just last week he assumed for the first time the title of secretary-general of the "national command" of the Baath party in Iraq.
The rift between the two leaders soon became spiced with personal animosity.
Assad, cunning and ambitious to lead the Arab cause, had built on success as a military officer. Saddam had failed examinations to the prestigious Baghdad military academy.
The Syrian had been an undisputed ruler since 1970. Saddam, although de facto leader, had to wait until 1979 to take the crown officially.
Egypt's pursuit of peace with Israel had resulted in an Iraqi rapprochement with Syria in 1978 at a time when both Damascus and Baghdad were still sworn enemies of the Jewish state.
Assad went to Baghdad for an autumn summit and the two parties soon declared they were "one state, one party and one people".
The honeymoon did not last as entrenched enmity resurfaced.
Assad returned to Baghdad in 1979, but his mission failed and the unity project was finally buried a month later when Saddam took total power. He accused Syria of involvement in a coup attempt against him.
The following year, Iraqi forces invaded Iran. Baghdad accused Damascus of treachery for its support of Tehran and diplomatic relations have been severed ever since.
King Hussein of Jordan attempted reconciliation between the two in a border meeting in the early 1980s to no avail.
In 1988, Iraq began financial and military support to General Michel Aoun who had declared a "war of liberation" to drive Syrian troops out of Lebanon.
And when Iraq overran Kuwait in 1990, Assad sent troops to join the US-led multinational force, which ejected Saddam's army.
Saddam even linked evacuation from Kuwait not only with Israel's withdrawal from "Palestine" but also a Syrian pullout of Lebanon.
The two neighbors began to normalize links in 1997 on the basis of trade, gradually opening their border to businessmen and government officials.
In July 1998, the two countries agreed to re-commission the oil pipeline between the Kirkuk oilfield and the Syrian port of Banias, closed since 1982, but it is still not operational.
Iraq opened an interest section in Damascus in April this year and Syria is expected to follow suit.
Diplomats are watching to see if the regime, which emerges in Damascus, expected to be led by Assad's son Bashar, will pursue the timid opening.
Saddam is sending one of his vice presidents, Taha Mohieddin Maaruf, to the funeral on Tuesday, making him the highest-ranking Iraqi official to visit Syria in two decades – (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)