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Iraq treads carefully with Syria unrest
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Aug 12, 2011

US urges China, Russia, India action on Syria
Washington (AFP) Aug 11, 2011 - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday urged China, Russia and India to step up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to curtail his government's brutal crackdown on protests.

In an interview with CBS News, Clinton suggested that China and India impose energy sanctions on Syria while she urged Russia to stop selling arms to Damascus, which has bought arms from Moscow for decades.

"What we really need to do to put the pressure on Assad is to sanction the oil and gas industry. And we want to see Europe take more steps in that direction," Clinton said.

"And we want China to take steps with us. We want to see India, because India and China have large energy investments inside of Syria. We want to see Russia cease selling arms to the Assad regime," the top US diplomat said.

Clinton's spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters earlier that she did not know when Russia last made an arms delivery to Syria.

But when asked if Washington had asked Russia to stop arms sales, Nuland replied: "We have repeatedly, yes, and over many, many years and more than one administration."

Clinton meanwhile welcomed the fact that China and Russia, after refusing to condemn Syria, backed a UN Security Council statement last week denouncing the regime's crackdown.

Clinton said the United States is also trying to encourage a divided opposition to become more unified, as minority groups who might be ready to oppose Assad end up supporting him for fear of what might succeed his regime.

"There are many communities, minority communities within Syria who are frankly saying the devil we know is better than the devil we don't," Clinton told CBS.

"So part of what we've been doing is to encourage the opposition to adopt a kind of unified agenda rooted in democratic change," she said.

"So if you're a Christian, if you're a Kurd, if you're a Druze, if you're an Alawite, if you're a Sunni, inside Syria there'll be a place for you in the future."

Iraq is treading carefully in its response to Syria's deadly crackdown on protesters, balancing its ties to Iran, which backs Damascus, and international condemnation of Syria, officials and analysts say.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protesters, in which rights groups say more than 2,000 people have been killed since March, has drawn widespread international condemnation, including from several Arab states, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

But while Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi on Tuesday demanded "that the Syrian government stop the bloodshed" and condemned violence there, the Iraqi government has not taken a strong official stance on the violence in Syria.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a general call in late May for Syria to enact reforms, but did not give specific proposals nor call for the violence to cease.

"Our stance... is to call on the Syrian government to make reforms commensurate with the desires of the people," Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi told AFP.

"We don't agree with the use of violence, whether by government forces or armed groups," Abawi said, adding that "we regret the escalation of military operations, and we wish it would stop and reforms begin."

But unlike Saudi Arabia, which has withdrawn its envoy, Abawi added: "Recalling the Iraqi ambassador to Damascus is not currently on the table."

Kurdish government spokesman Kawa Mahmud added that the autonomous region's government does not "intervene in the internal affairs of any neighboring country."

"But at the same time, the Kurdistan government welcomes anything that deepens democracy and strengthens human rights," he told AFP.

Analysts said that Iraq's careful response to the violence in Syria owes much to its relationship with Iran, with which it shares a long border.

"The Iraqi government is adopting a careful attitude about the events in Syria," said political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari. "It is an attitude linked to the political conflict between Iran and Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia."

"Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, is a main player in Iraq," he said, "so taking a different stance about the events in Syria might negatively affect many joint files between Iraq and Iran."

"But Iraq at the same time doesn't want to lose Arab (relations) after the Arab countries started to speak against Assad's regime," Shammari added.

Several Middle East countries have condemned the Syrian regime's ongoing violent response to demonstrations, with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which groups six Arab states, urging an end to the "bloodshed" on August 6.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have recalled their ambassadors from Damascus.

"The Iraqi government is taking no position and speaking generally," said Aziz Jabr, a political science professor at Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University.

"This issue is linked to the Iranian stance of supporting the Syrian regime," Jabr said. "Iraq will lean to the Iranian side more than to that of the Arab parties."

Despite both having been ruled by "branches" of the pan-Arab Baath party, which rose to power in 1963 in Syria and five years later in Iraq, the two countries have a history of thorny relations.

The branches rapidly moved in different directions and, in August 1980, Syria and Iraq severed diplomatic relations, as Damascus backed Tehran after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war.

Throughout Saddam Hussein's rule, Syria gave refuge to his political opponents, including Maliki himself.

Relations between Iraq and Syria have generally improved since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam, which saw the Iraqi Baath party banned.

However, Iraq has accused Damascus of shielding insurgents, including those behind massive bomb attacks against the foreign and finance ministries in Baghdad in August 2009 that killed 95 people.

The ensuing diplomatic spat prompted the two countries to recall their ambassadors for a year.

"The Shiites of Iraq suffered from the Baath party (under Saddam). They look forward to a change that brings democracy to Syria," said Shammari.

"But if Assad goes and extremist or Salafist blocs emerge, the Shiites in Iraq will oppose jihadists taking power there, if they believe that this will greatly change the equation and relationships between the two countries."

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UN leader alarmed over rising civilian toll in Libya
United Nations (AFP) Aug 11, 2011 - UN leader Ban Ki-moon on Thursday expressed alarm over the rising number of civilian casualties in the Libya conflict, including those inflicted in NATO airstrikes.

Without specifically naming any side, Ban called on "all parties" to use "extreme caution" in the battle, said a UN statement. Ban also stepped up calls for a political solution to the conflict, in which rebels have sought to overthrow Moamer Kadhafi's four-decades-old regime.

"The secretary general is deeply concerned by reports of the unacceptably large number of civilian casualties as a result of the conflict in Libya," said the statement.

"The secretary general calls on all parties to exercise extreme caution in their actions, in order to minimize any further loss of civilian life," it added.

When asked if NATO was included in the message, a UN spokeswoman stressed the "all parties" phrase.

Ban has been a staunch defender of the NATO air campaign against Kadhafi, which began in March.

But the air attacks have drawn harsh criticism from members of the UN Security Council, including Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa, who say the action goes beyond UN resolutions on Libya.

UNESCO's director general Irina Bokova this week branded as "unacceptable" a NATO attack on the Libyan state broadcasting headquarters in which three people died, saying that media should not be targeted.

NATO has insisted that its attacks are in keeping with UN resolutions passed this year which allow military action to protect civilians in Libya.

On Wednesday, Ban spoke with Kadhafi's prime minister, Baghdadi Mahmudi, to press for the protection of civilians and demand new efforts to find a political solution to the conflict, the United Nations said.

Ban told Mahmudi "he was very troubled that there had been an absolute lack of progress in the efforts to find a politically negotiated solution" to the conflict, it said.

In the latest statement, Ban reaffirmed "his strongly held belief that there can be no military solution to the Libyan crisis.

"A ceasefire that is linked to a political process which would meet the aspirations of the Libyan people is the only viable means to achieving peace and security in Libya."

He urged Kadhafi and the rebels "to immediately engage" with special UN envoy Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, and "respond concretely and positively to the ideas presented to them, in order to end the bloodshed in the country."

The former Jordanian foreign minister has spent months shuttling between Tripoli and the rebel base at Benghazi trying to start ceasefire talks between the Kadhafi regime and the rebels' governing council.

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Syrian forces enter another two protest hubs: activists
Nicosia (AFP) Aug 11, 2011
Syria's army sent tanks and troops early Thursday into another two towns as it pursued its crackdown on protests against the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, rights activists said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement tanks, troop carriers and buses transporting security force members sped into Saraqeb in northwestern Idlib province arou ... read more

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