Iraq warns against arming Syrian rebels
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq on Sunday warned Arab countries against supplying weapons and financial support to rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying such moves risked escalating the conflict.
"We want to extinguish the fire by draining the sources of force, we want to find a peaceful solution to the crisis," Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters at a press conference.
"We reject any arming of the opposition, we reject attempts to bring down the regime by force, because it will leave a wider crisis in the region," he added.
Maliki made the appeal as foreign ministers from around 70 countries including the United States and leading European and Gulf powers met in Istanbul to try to agree how best to support the Syrian opposition.
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has adopted a more moderate position on Syria than Sunni Gulf neighbors Qatar and Saudi Arabia which have advocated supplying arms to the Syrian rebels.
If Assad were to lose power, Iraqi Shi'ite leaders are worried their own country's fragile sectarian balance among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurds could be unsettled, especially if a hardline Sunni regime replaced the Assad government.
Both Iraq and Syria have close ties to Shi'ite power Iran, which is caught in a regional power struggle for more influence with Sunni Arab Gulf countries.
At a summit in Baghdad last week, Arab League members agreed to endorse a six-point peace plan drawn up by special United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for a ceasefire and talks with the opposition.
On Sunday, Western and Arab nations met in Istanbul for the "Friends of Syria" Conference, seeking to exert more pressure on Assad who accepted the plan but has so far failed to implement it.
The participants are skeptical of his promises to end a year of bloodshed, but are not expected to agree to arm rebels or to fully recognize an opposition council.
"This conference will only hear the same voice that calls for armament," Maliki said.
The Saudi foreign minister said on Saturday it was a "duty" to arm the Syrian rebels, but Western powers are anxious not to be drawn into a possibly intractable conflict.
Despite Annan's mediation efforts, violence has raged unabated. Opposition activists reported at least 16 people killed on Sunday, mostly in clashes in northwestern and eastern Syria.
Syrian media derided the Istanbul meeting, with the ruling Baath party newspaper describing it as "a regional and international scramble to find ways of killing more Syrians and destroying their society and country, to reach the broad goal of weakening Syria".
Iraq itself is trying to rebuild after years of war following the 2003 invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Insurgents and suicide bombers often crossed the porous border from Syria during the height of the country's conflict.
(Writing by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Andrew Osborn)