Defecting Syrian envoy now in Qatar-Iraqi minister

PARIS Thu Jul 12, 2012 8:16am EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - The Syrian ambassador to Iraq who defected, Nawaf al-Fares, is currently in Qatar, Iraq's foreign minister told reporters on Thursday.

"He has not defected while in Iraq ... He had left Iraq and today he has an interview with al-Jazeera (television) in Qatar," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters in Paris, where he was opening a new embassy building.

Fares was the first senior diplomat to quit the embattled Syrian government, and Iraq's Zebari said his defection on Wednesday was a surprise because he was loyal to Bashar al-Assad's government.

Zebari, whose government is part of an action group of major powers and Arab nations trying to resolve the Syrian conflict, said the ambassador had spent much of his time outside Iraq since the crisis started.

"He would come occasionally to Baghdad. I know him and he is a man of strong military and security background," Zebari said after opening his country's new embassy in Paris. "We were surprised by his defection because he was a loyal member of the regime."

Zebari said things might be starting to snowball, in that Fares' defection followed the high-profile defection last week of Assad's friend General Manaf Tlass.

Iraq has taken a cautious stance on events in Syria - it has a 680 km (425 mile) border with its western neighbor and close ties with Iran, Damascus's regional ally and Iraq's eastern neighbor.

Zebari dismissed suggestions that Iran was influencing Baghdad over Syria and reiterated that it was up to the Syrian people to decide whether Assad stepped down.

U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan was in Iraq and Iran this week and is trying to step up the two countries' involvement in the search for a solution to the Syrian conflict.

Zebari was cautious about the prospects for peace in Syria. "That can only be achieved through dialogue between the opposition and the government," he said. "That is far away."

(Reporting By John Irish; editing by Tim Pearce)

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