Iraq sees escalation, fears spillover of Syria crisis

BAGHDAD Sat Jun 23, 2012 11:12am EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Syria's downing of a Turkish plane marks a serious escalation of the Syrian crisis, which risks spilling over into neighboring countries, Iraq's foreign minister said on Saturday.

Syria shot down a Turkish jet over the Mediterranean on Friday and Ankara has said it will do whatever is necessary after the incident, which threatened to open a new international dimension in the 16-month revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Our main concern is the spillover of the crisis into neighboring countries," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told a news conference with his Swedish, Bulgarian and Polish counterparts in Baghdad.

"No country is immune from this spillover because of the composition of the societies, the extensions, the connections, the sectarian, ethnic dimensions," he said.

If the conflict were to slide into an all-out sectarian or civil war, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey would all be affected, he said. "This is not an excuse to do nothing about Syria, no. But there will be an impact."

He said the crisis had intensified in recent days with the shelling of civilian residential areas, increase in the number of demonstrators killed and the defection of a Syrian pilot who flew his plane to Jordan.

"The shooting down yesterday of a Turkish aircraft over Syrian territorial waters - this is a serious escalation and indication that the conflict would have (a) far bigger impact than (on) Syria itself," Zebari said.

Zebari held talks with the three other foreign ministers who are on an EU-backed mission to help seek solutions to the Syria crisis.

The trio visited Lebanon on Friday and will report their findings to EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

"Iraq is part of the region, Iraq is part of the solution. It is important that the countries that are the most affected, but also perhaps have the greatest possibility to influence developments in Syria, are fully part of the efforts," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told the news conference, adding that they were "appalled" by what he said were human rights abuses in Syria.

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has adopted a more moderate position on Syria than Sunni Gulf states Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have advocated supplying arms to the Syrian rebels.

An Arab diplomat said on Saturday that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were paying salaries to rebel forces fighting in the Syrian revolt.

Bulgaria's Nickolay Mladenov said Iraq's transition after the fall of Saddam Hussein could be a model for Syria.

"Iraq itself went through a transformation from dictatorship to a democratic environment and in a lot of ways the opposition parties in Iraq came together, particularly in the north," he told Reuters. Iraq shares its northwestern border with Syria.

Since Saddam was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has been mired in sectarian violence that peaked in 2006-2007.

The last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December, and a wave of bombings has since killed hundreds and fuelled fears Iraq could slip back into sectarian bloodletting. Political turmoil has also threatened the fragile Shi'ite-led cross-sectarian government.

(Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)

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