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Speaker Says Iraqi Army Must Be Neutral as 57 Troops Die

The Iraqi army should remain neutral and resist taking sides in the Syrian civil war, said the country’s parliamentary Speaker, after at least 57 Iraqi and Syrian troops were killed in an insurgent attack.

Usama Al-Nujaifi, a Sunni who’s previously called for the resignation of Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, told reporters in Baghdad today that involvement in the Syrian conflict may aggravate divisions within Iraq.

“There are reports saying that the Iraqi army has interfered to back the Syrian army against the Free Syrian Army,” Nujaifi said. Iraq will investigate, he said.

The speaker’s comments came after fighting yesterday near the Syrian border in Iraq’s Anbar province in which about 48 Syrian and nine Iraqi troops were reported killed, according to Iraq’s Defense Ministry website. The Syrians had been treated in Iraq for wounds received in fighting two days before and were being escorted home by Iraqi forces, the ministry said.

Syria’s two-year-long civil war has evolved along largely sectarian lines, with many in the Sunni majority supporting the rebels and much of the Shiite Muslim, Christian and Alawite minorities backing President Bashar al-Assad. Maliki said last month that Assad will remain in power for years. His government last year denied supplying fuel oil to its neighbor.

Assad ‘Support’

“This attack, which is most likely by al-Qaeda sympathizers in the Syrian rebel movement, aims to spread the rebellion to Iraq because of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s support for Assad,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military analysis in Dubai.

The Iraqi army should confine itself to defending the country’s borders, Nujaifi said, because the population isn’t united on events in Syria.

Anti-government protests in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ second-largest producer have spread across eight provinces as the Sunni and Kurdish communities demand greater power sharing a decade after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Authorities in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish north have halted oil exports through the central government-controlled pipeline amid rows over energy contracts and disputed land.

Nujaifi called on Feb. 13 for Maliki’s resignation, describing him as the only person standing in way of reconciliation. Maliki yesterday urged lawmakers to replace Nujaifi, saying he has made sectarian statements.

Resignation Threat

Finance Minister Rafih al-Issawi, one of the most senior Sunnis in the Maliki government, resigned March 1 saying protesters’ demands have not been met. Other members of the Sunni-dominated al-Iraqiya coalition may resign in the coming days, Nujaifi said today.

Iraq holds the world’s fifth-biggest crude reserves, according to BP Plc statistics that include Canada’s oil sands. Total SA, BP, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and other international companies are among oil companies working there.

Syrian rebels have seized large parts of the northeastern city of Raqqah from Assad’s forces, and it may become the first city to fall to the opposition, a rights group said.

Fighters with the al-Nusra Front and other rebel factions captured the governor of Raqqah province, Hassan Jalili, and the local head of the Ba’ath Party branch, Suleiman al-Suleiman, during the fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page. The U.K.-based group posted a video that it said showed pro-government forces captured during the fighting.

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