New Iran FM Visits Iraq to Discuss 'Dangerous' Syria Situation, on First Trip Abroad

Javad Zarif is received by his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari, and is expected to meet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; both Iran and Iraq oppose Western military intervention in Syria.

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Iran's new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, visited Iraq on Sunday to discuss what he called the "dangerous situation" in Syria and the wider region.

After more than two years of civil war, U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to drum up support for limited strikes on Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack that Washington blames on the government of Bashar Assad.

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has sought to maintain a neutral stance towards the conflict and has warned against any Western military intervention in Syria. Iran, Assad's main regional ally, also opposes a strike.

"Our negotiations in Baghdad will tackle bilateral issues and the dangerous situation and circumstances in the region," said Zarif after landing in Baghdad for his first official trip abroad since taking office.

He was received by his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari and was also expected to meet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki later in the day.

The Syrian conflict has widened a fault line between Islam's two main denominations, pitting mainly Sunni rebels, their Gulf Arab sponsors and some Western powers against Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shi'ism.

Iraq's own sectarian balance has come under growing strain from the events in Syria, which have given new momentum to Sunni Islamist insurgents who have been striking with a ferocity not seen in years.

Sunni and Shi'ite militants from Iraq have also crossed into Syria to fight on opposite sides of the conflict, complicating the government's official position of neutrality.

Syria's Christian minority has also come under threat in the Syrian civil war; on Sunday, rebels including Al-Qaida-linked fighters gained control of Maaloula, a Christian village northeast of the capital Damascus, according to Syrian activists. Government media provided a dramatically different account of the battle suggesting regime forces were winning.

The rebel advance into the area was reportedly spearheaded by the Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, exacerbating fears among Syrians and religious minorities in particular about the role played by Islamic extremists within the rebel ranks.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported the United States had intercepted a directive from a senior Iranian official instructing Shi'ite militants in Iraq to attack U.S. interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike.

Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesman for Iran's UN mission in New York, on Saturday denied the allegations and dismissed them as "baseless".

"One should remember that reliance on such intelligence reports from anonymous US officials will lead to another disaster similar to the Iraq tragedy," Miryousefi was quoted as saying by Press TV.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, right, talks with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari after arriving at the Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, September 8, 2013. Credit: AP

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