Iraq's Maliki: Assad could hold on for years

RIYADH Sat Feb 9, 2013 6:10am EST

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RIYADH (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could survive two more years of revolt despite U.S. expectations of a more imminent fall, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was quoted as saying on Saturday.

Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim, is seen as close to Assad's main ally Iran, but has been careful not to express support for either the Syrian leader, fighting a rebellion since early 2011, or the predominantly Sunni opposition.

In an interview in Cairo with the Saudi-owned, London-based Asharq al-Awsat, Maliki said U.S. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had told him Assad would fall "within two months".

He did not say when he had spoken to them.

Maliki said Assad would not fall "even after two years."

"I know Syria very well," he said, adding that Assad's minority Alawite sect would fight alongside other minority groups against rebels, which include Sunni Islamist militants.

Iraq has been mired in sectarian strife for 10 years and Baghdad fears the rise of a hardline Sunni government in Damascus could upset its own fragile security.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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