BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's prime minister warned Wednesday that a victory for rebels in the Syrian civil war would create a new extremist haven and destabilize the wider Middle East, sparking sectarian wars in his own country and in Lebanon.
Nouri al-Maliki stopped short of voicing outright support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's embattled regime. But his comments in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press marked one of his strongest warnings yet about the turmoil that the collapse of the Syrian government could create.
The prime minister's remarks reflect fears by many Shiite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere that Sunni Muslims would come to dominate Syria should Assad be toppled, and his statements could provide a measure of moral support for those fighting to keep Assad in power.
"If the world does not agree to support a peaceful solution through dialogue ... then I see no light at the end of the tunnel," al-Maliki said in his office in a Saddam Hussein-era palace inside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.
"Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish each other off," he continued. "The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq."
The Iraqi leader's comments come as his government confronts growing tensions of its own between the Shiite majority and an increasingly restive Sunni minority nearly a decade after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The war in Syria has sharp sectarian overtones, with predominantly Sunni rebels fighting a regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Rebel groups have increasingly embraced radical Islamic ideologies, and some of their greatest battlefield successes have been carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-affiliated group which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization.
Assad's main allies are Shiite Iran and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also warned Wednesday against sectarian infighting in Lebanon related to the Syrian civil war.
"There are some who are working night and day and pushing the country toward civil and religious strife, and specifically Sunni-Shiite strife," Nasrallah said on the group's Al-Manar TV. If this were to happen, he said, it would "destroy everyone and burn down the entire country."
Nasrallah denied accusations by the Syrian opposition that members of the group were fighting alongside forces loyal to the Assad regime, and reiterated that some Shiites in villages along the Lebanese-Syrian border, including Hezbollah members, have taken up arms in self-defense against Sunni gunmen.
Officials and analysts say there is real anxiety within Hezbollah that if Assad falls, it might lose not only a crucial supply route for weapons but also political clout inside Lebanon, where it currently dominates the government, along with its allies.
An opposition Sunni lawmaker in Iraq, Hamid al-Mutlaq, dismissed al-Maliki's contention that Assad's ouster would lead to a civil war contagion in the region.
"Through the statements and the behavior of the Iraqi government headed by al-Maliki, it seems that the Iraqi officials prefer the idea that Assad would remain in power," he said.
Asked about al-Maliki's comments, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Washington has been clear in expressing concern about extremists in the Syrian rebel ranks and the risk of Syria's war spilling over to neighboring countries.
"There are people who are trying to foment violence in Syria," he said. "These countries' histories are intertwined, and so we have concerns about sectarian violence and Iraq, as well."
"All the neighbors are concerned about the spillover," Ventrell said. "We're doing everything we can to end that violence and provide a future that's more stable for Syria, and that would be more stable for Iraq as well."
The toppling of Assad would deal a serious blow to the regional influence of Syria's patron Iran, which has built increasingly strong relations with Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.
Iraq has tried to maintain a neutral stance toward the civil war in Syria, saying that the aspirations of the Syrian people should be met through peaceful means.
Washington has criticized Baghdad, however, for doing too little to stop flights suspected of carrying Iranian arms to Syria from transiting Iraqi airspace.
Al-Maliki emphatically denied aiding the arms transfers: "Not to the regime and not to the opposition. No weapon is being transferred through Iraqi skies, territories or waters," he said.
He characterized Baghdad's relationship with the U.S. as maturing nearly a decade after the March 20, 2003, invasion, and said there is a strong will on both sides to strengthen relations further.
He also took another opportunity to note his country's appreciation for the U.S. role in toppling Saddam's dictatorship, and said the withdrawal of American troops in December 2011 was the right decision at the right time. A small number of U.S. military personnel remain in Iraq, but they are an arm of the American Embassy.
Many Sunnis have long blamed al-Maliki for promoting his Shiite sect at their expense and for being too closely aligned with neighboring Iran.
His government has faced two months of unexpectedly resilient protests from the Sunni community, whose members held many senior positions in Saddam's regime.
The rallies, which have been largely peaceful, erupted in Iraq's western Sunni heartland of Anbar in late December following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of the most senior Sunni politicians in government.
Although the detentions were the spark for the demonstrations, the rallies tap into deeper Sunni grievances, drawing on feelings of discrimination at the hands of al-Maliki's government.
Al-Maliki and his political allies initially dismissed the protesters. But as their rallies gained strength and spread throughout parts of Iraq where Sunnis are concentrated, the stern-faced premier began to offer concessions.
His government bowed to one of the protesters' early demands and released more than 2,000 detainees, including some held without charge. He also set up a committee to examine other grievances.
The prime minister vowed Tuesday to let the protests continue as long as they remain peaceful.
But he made a point of distinguishing between the protesters and the political leaders who back them.
He also suggested, as he has done in the past, that outside influences — an apparent allusion to predominantly Sunni countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states — are helping to fuel the unrest.
"What is going on in Iraq is connected to what is happening in the region. It is also connected to the results of the so-called Arab Spring and some sectarian policies in the region," he said.
"Our patience will continue because we believe that there are people in these provinces who are patriotic and they reject sectarianism, believe in the unity of the country and denounce the voices uttering sectarian words."
There is little chance of a return to open warfare in Iraq, since the Sunnis know they stand little chance of overpowering the Shiites. Nor do the majority of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, including protesters, support al-Qaida and its frequent widespread bombings of Shiite targets.
But Baghdad-based political analyst Hadi Jalo said al-Maliki is right to fear regime change in Syria.
"The removal of Assad by a Sunni government will weaken the Iraqi Shiites," Jalo said, noting that it could embolden Iraq's Sunnis to push for greater autonomy and even independence. "Any reasonable person would be surprised if the Iraqi government stands still and refrains from supporting Assad."
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Bradley Klapper in Washington and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.
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