Iraq's Maliki warns over Syrian sectarian turmoil

BAGHDAD Fri Sep 30, 2011 11:06am EDT

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned of regional fallout should protests in neighboring Syria escalate into sectarian violence or force a change in government along sectarian lines.

His statements underscore fears among Iraqi Shi'ite leaders and their allies in Iran that Syrian unrest could spill over into Iraq or unseat President Bashar al-Assad and bring to power a hardline Sunni Muslim regime next door.

The United Nations says 2,700 people have been killed in Syria's crackdown on six months of mainly peaceful protests, making it one of the bloodiest in a wave of revolts that has toppled three Arab leaders this year.

Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, a distant offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Baghdad's relations with Damascus and Tehran have strengthened since the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

"For a pivotal state like Syria, surrounded by challenges and crises, if the internal situation gets shaken and turns into sectarian war or even a change occurs along sectarian lines, the whole region will be a mess," Maliki told al-Manar television station in an interview broadcast on Friday.

Iraq has tried to tread a fine line between urging reforms to ease protests and supporting a neighbor whose future could shift the balance of power in Iraq and the region.

Maliki, a Shi'ite whose government shares power with Sunni and Kurdish blocs, has taken a more muted response compared to other Arab leaders, who have hit out at Assad and even withdrawn envoys from Syria in protest.

"We believe that Syria will be able to overcome its crisis through reforms," Maliki said. "We support these reforms."

Since the fall of Saddam and the rise of Iraq's Shi'ite majority, some Sunni leaders have talked about the emergence of a "Shi'ite Crescent" running from Iran, through Iraq and Alawite-ruled Syria to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.

Relations between Syria and Iraq were complicated in the past as Baghdad often accused Damascus of allowing Sunni Arab Islamists to cross the border to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces during the height of Iraq's war.

Maliki has since forged a more pragmatic relationship with Damascus, winning Assad's backing for the coalition government he formed after an indecisive election last year.

(Writing by Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Patrick Markey)