Iraq's Zebari warns of foreign meddling amid crisis
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's foreign minister said on Wednesday Iraq would invite more regional meddling in the country's affairs if its leaders failed to solve quickly a political crisis between the Shi'ite-led government and Sunni rivals.
"This aggravation is not in anybody's interests," Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, told Reuters in an interview.
"As long as your internal front is fragmented and not united ... others who want to interfere will be encouraged. That's why it is very important to deal with this crisis as soon as possible," he said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government has sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, accusing him of running a death squad, and demanded that parliament fire another rival, his Sunni deputy Saleh al-Mutlaq, after he compared Maliki to Saddam Hussein.
The row, which erupted days after the last U.S. troops withdrew, could unravel Iraq's fragile power-sharing deal among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs.
"This crisis came at the wrong time for Iraq. It came with the withdrawal of the last American troops," Zebari said. "The biggest challenge for Iraq after the U.S. forces' withdrawal is a political one, after that it is security."
Neighboring countries must not be allowed to think they can fill the vacuum after the U.S. withdrawal to interfere in Iraq's affairs, he said. "We will not be a pawn in others' games."
Shi'ite Iran has gained considerable influence in Iraq since the fall of Saddam after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and Iraqi officials also complain of meddling by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. All have tried to play a role in directing Iraqi politics during and after the government formation last year.
Zebari said Hashemi's case had been blown out of proportion in the media when it should have been dealt with quietly among Iraqi political leaders.
But he dismissed fears Iraq would return to the kind of sectarian slaughter that almost ripped the country apart in 2006-07.
Shi'ite leaders say Hashemi's case involves law enforcement against individuals and does not target a community, but the Sunni minority fears that Maliki is increasing his hold on the government and marginalizing Sunnis.
Both Hashemi and Mutlaq are senior Sunni leaders of Iraqiya, a cross-sectarian political bloc, which won majority seats in parliament last year on the back of minority Sunni votes.
Hashemi took refuge in the northern semi-autonomous Kurdish region after the arrest warrant was issued against him. On Wednesday, Maliki called on Kurdish authorities to hand Hashemi over to face charges, which he has denied.
Zebari, who has been involved in the Iraqi government's mediation with Neighboring Syria to help end months of violence, said a delegation from the Syrian opposition is expected in Baghdad next week for a fresh round of talks.
Iraq has resisted Arab League calls for sanctions against Damascus, and Iraqi leaders are worried that unrest in Syria could inflame its own sectarian tensions.
Iraq sent a delegation last week to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents, and helped persuade
Damascus to agree to an Arab League-proposed peace plan.
Syria stalled for weeks before signing a protocol on Monday to accept monitors who will check its compliance with an Arab plan for an end to violence, withdrawal of troops from the streets, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
Despite that, Syrian forces killed 111 people on Tuesday, activists said, and France branded the killings an "unprecedented massacre."
Zebari said the Syrian opposition still has "fears and doubts" over the Assad government's readiness to implement the Arab plan, but said all parties have to be patient and wait for the outcome of the Arab mission.
"These issues cannot be solved by pressing a button to get the result, not in the world of politics and negotiations."
(Reporting by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Myra MacDonald)
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