A wary Iraq weighs its options as Syrian civil war deepens
Fears in Iraq of a spillover of Syria's fighting, or a victory for Sunni Islamists hostile to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, have Iraq weighing its options.
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Iraq, which is a Shiite majority, has the Arab world’s only Shiite-led government. Shiite flags commemorating mourning for Imam Hussein drape government buildings including the Oil Ministry and fly from police cars in central Baghdad. But Maliki and many senior officials remain convinced they are surrounded by enemies inside and out who want to see their downfall.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Reaching a critical juncture in Syria
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Fear and warnings
“We have information that there are regional attempts to destroy the security situation in Kirkuk, Ninevah, and Diyala,” Maliki told a press conference this week. He said a regional security command he had set up for the three northern provinces was aimed not against the Kurds but at extremist forces backed by other countries.
He said those militants were aimed at launching attacks and creating "an imagined ‘Free Iraqi Army.’"
The comment was Maliki’s first public reference to a reported group modeled after the Free Syrian Army and linked by Iraqi government officials to former Baathists, including former Iraqi Army officers, and Sunni extremists – many of them with ties to Syria and Jordan.
It’s not clear whether the group is a genuine force or simply a propaganda tool for recruitment purposes. None of its members have claimed responsibility for attacks against government targets.
Some of Iraq’s allies are concerned the country could be too preoccupied with the fear of Syria becoming a Sunni extremist state to keep its options option.
“Our advice to them is to look ahead. We think this regime is finished, and if they continue to give it support or allow others to give it support then it will be difficult for them to develop good relations with whatever the successor arrangement is,” says the Western diplomat.
The Iraqi government’s efforts to play a mediating role with Assad failed when it became clear that the Syrian government was intent on continuing its military campaign. Opposition leaders have ignored Baghdad’s advice to hold talks with the Syrian government.
“The Syrian opposition is really illiterate in the art of opposition,” says one senior Kurdish official. “They have this zero-sum game – us or them – and in an opposition this is wrong. You have to be flexible. We did it – Saddam was massacring us and led 2 [million], 3 million of our people to flee and our people were talking to him in Baghdad.”
As a sign of Baghdad’s carefully evolving position regarding Syria, government officials have indicated Iraq could support a no-fly zone preventing the Syrian government from launching airstrikes against its people. A US, British and French no-fly zone after the Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s stopped Iraqi government attacks in the north.
While Iraqi officials emphasize the country’s humanitarian efforts in sending food and medicine to Syria, those efforts have not extended to allowing in large numbers of Syrian refugees.
Kurdish Syrians crossing the border in the north are given refuge in camps in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. But hundreds of miles from Baghdad at the main border crossing of al-Qaim, Iraqi forces have closed the border to all but the most desperate of Syrian refugees.
More than 1 million Iraqis took refuge in Syria during the sectarian fighting here. While the Iraqi government has said it does not have the capacity to care for the Syrian refugees, it has also made clear its main worry is security.
When the Syrian side of the border fell to opposition fighters earlier this year, the Iraqi government immediately sealed its side of the crossing with concrete barriers. A makeshift gate now carefully controls who crosses into Iraq. Every afternoon, Iraqis drop off food and medicine between the two border gates, leaving it for the Syrian side to pick up.