Baghdad has so far shied away from punitive measures against Assad's regime
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during a US/Iraq Initiative luncheon at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, December 13. Iraq will send a delegation to Syria to try to convince Damascus to implement an Iraqi initiative to end months of bloody conflict, Maliki told AFP in an exclusive interview. © Jim Watson - AFP/File
Baghdad has so far shied away from punitive measures against Assad's regime
Ammar Karim, AFP
Last updated: December 15, 2011

Iraq to send peace delegation to Syria

Iraq will send a delegation to Syria to try to convince Damascus to implement an Iraqi initiative to end months of unrest, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told AFP in an exclusive interview on Thursday.

Maliki also said oil giant ExxonMobil has promised to reconsider an exploration deal with Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region that has angered Baghdad, and that a year-end deadline for closing an Iranian opposition exile camp in Iraq is final.

"When I arrive in Baghdad, I will hold a meeting to prepare the plans to send a delegation to Syria in order to implement the Iraqi initiative," Maliki told AFP as he flew back to Iraq from Washington.

The initiative is aimed at opening a dialogue between the opposition and the Syrian government to reach a result that satisfies both sides, he said.

"America and Europe are afraid of the phase after (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad. That is why they understand the initiative" from Iraq, Maliki said.

The United Nations this week estimated that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the Syrian government's crackdown on dissent, which has entered its 10th month.

On Thursday, army deserters killed at least 27 soldiers and security service agents south of Damascus in a third straight day of regime losses, while Human Rights Watch said half of the rebels it spoke to had mutinied over orders to shoot civilians.

Shiite-led Baghdad has so far shied away from punitive measures against Assad's Alawite Shiite regime, abstaining from both a vote to suspend Syria from the Arab League, and another to impose sanctions on Damascus.

There are fears among officials in Iraq, which has a substantial Sunni minority, that instability in neighbouring Sunni-majority Syria could spill across the border.

The Arab League, meanwhile, has called an emergency meeting of the 22-member bloc's foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday to respond to Syria's proposal to admit observers in exchange for an end to regional sanctions.

Maliki also said Exxonmobil has agreed to reconsider its controversial oil exploration deal with the autonomous Kurdistan region in north Iraq.

"We had a meeting with (Exxon) in Washington and we discussed the contracts, some of which are located in disputed areas," Maliki said.

"They promised to reconsider their decision."

On October 18, Kurdistan signed a deal with ExxonMobil for it to explore six areas, but Baghdad regards any contracts not signed with the central government as invalid.

An official with the Iraqi oil ministry has said that two of the areas -- Al-Qosh and Bardarash -- are actually parts of Nineveh province that Kurdistan wants to annex into its autonomous region, a move Baghdad opposes.

The Kurdistan contract potentially puts an Exxon contract with the Iraqi government in jeopardy.

Iraq's oil ministry completed the deal with ExxonMobil and Anglo-Dutch giant Shell in January 2010 to develop production at West Qurna-1, which with reserves of about 8.5 billion barrels is the country's second-biggest field.

Maliki also said Iraq's decision to close Camp Ashraf, which is occupied by the opposition People's Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, is final.

"The decision we made is irreversible," Maliki said.

He said a United Nations representative was not permitted to visit Camp Ashraf, and that the PMOI had also refused to implement a UN plan to shut down the camp, saying this reinforced Iraq's decision.

This "means that it (the PMOI) is a criminal gang, and we cannot allow a criminal gang to remain" in Iraq, Maliki said.

On December 6, the United Nations appealed to the Iraqi government to push back the deadline to close the camp, located in Diyala province northwest of Baghdad, warning of a growing risk of violence.

The positions of the residents and the government "remain far apart," UN envoy to Iraq Martin Kobler told the Security Council, appealing to the international community to find new homes for the exiles.

Camp Ashraf, which has become a mounting international problem, has been in the spotlight since a deadly April raid on the camp by Iraqi security forces.

The camp was set up when Iraq and Iran were at war in the 1980s by the PMOI and later came under US control until January 2009, when US forces transferred security for the camp to Iraq.

The PMOI has been on the US government terrorist list since 1997.

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