By Patrick Markey
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Wary of its own fragile security and sectarian make-up, Iraq wants to avoid getting dragged deeper into Syria's crisis, seeking a tricky balance in the regional power struggle evolving over its neighbor, Iraq's foreign minister said.
Iraq's Shi'ite leaders fear a collapse of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government could splinter Syria along sectarian lines, and eventually lead to the rise of a hardline Sunni regime hostile to Baghdad.
Growing violence from the 17-month Sunni-led rebel revolt against Assad's rule also risks unsettling Baghdad's own fragile balance among Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish parties and drawing Islamist fighters back across the border into Iraq.
"We are concerned about spillover of militias, armed groups, of fundamentalism, undermining our political system," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters. "There is a Sunni Shi'ite fault in the whole region. We don't want to be dragged there."
Where other Arab and Gulf nations have called for Assad to step down, actively backing Syrian rebels, Iraq has taken a more muted approach. It resists calls for Assad to go, and instead urges reform to end to the country's one-party Baathist rule.
With Shi'ite Iran backing Assad, who is from the Alawite minority - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and rival Sunni power Saudi Arabia supporting the fighters opposing him, Syria risks a civil war that will destabilize its neighbors.
Caught up in its own crisis among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties paralyzing its power-sharing government, Iraq finds itself in a delicate position, even more so after the withdrawal of the last American troops in December.
Though close to Iran, Iraq's government dismisses claims it supports the Syrian leader because of Tehran and says it seeks an independent foreign policy. Yet, Baghdad abstained in an Arab League vote to suspend Syria and has resisted calls for Arab sanctions on its neighbor.
"The Arab League should have a role to play and if it is part of the problem, it will have no role," said Zebari, a Kurd, explaining Iraq's position. "If we take sides, we either have to go to war or to arm something we don't support."
Syria's crisis has already complicated Baghdad's tense ties with the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, which is helping Syrian Kurdish opposition groups across the border to aid their push for more self-rule from the Assad regime.
Iraq says Sunni Islamist fighters are also crossing from Iraq into Syria, and security experts say Iraqi insurgents are gaining a boost in funds and morale as Islamists enter neighboring country's conflict.
Baghdad has had a complex relationship with Damascus even before the U.S. invasion ousted Saddam Hussein.
Assad's and Saddam's Baath parties had some common, secular roots though Syria backed Iran during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. After Saddam fell, many Iraqi Baathists and ordinary Iraqi refugees crossed over into Syria to take shelter.
When U.S. forces fought al-Qaeda and Sunni Islamists after the 2003 invasion, Iraqi leaders criticized Damascus for sheltering insurgents who often slipped across the porous border to bomb American troops.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a member of the Shi'ite Islamist Dawa party who took refuge in Iran and Syria during Saddam's era, has since developed a more pragmatic relationship with the Assad regime.
He won support not only from Tehran, but also Damascus for his coalition government after an indecisive 2010 Iraqi election. Even as late as August last year he hosted Syrian ministers and called Iraq and Syria "brother" nations.
But at the end of last year, Maliki called for an end to Assad's one-party rule and urged reforms.
Shi'ite leaders in Iraq acknowledge in private that while not supporting Assad, they fear more what might come next. They also fret over a return of former Baathists, who may join Sunni Islamist groups to destabilise the country.
"Iraq has stated from the beginning it stands by the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people to gain their freedom, democracy, a political process," Zebari said.
"But Iraq has its own concerns about developments in Syria, security concerns, sectarian concerns, terrorism concerns. We don't know the outcome, what will happen."
(Editing by Louise Ireland)