Middle Eastern experts note that Maliki — a Shiite Muslim who lived in exile in Syria for nearly 15 years — has strategic and sectarian reasons for avoiding a direct confrontation with Assad. Members of Iraq’s Shiite majority and Syria’s ruling Alawite Shiite sect share a common worry about Sunni-led insurgencies. Some Iraqis fear that a violent overthrow of Syrian Alawites will trigger unrest across the border in Iraq.
But other experts say Iraq’s support for Syria underscores the influence of Iran, which has staked billions of dollars on ensuring Assad’s survival. Pollock, the former State Department adviser, said Iraqi leaders fear repercussions from Iran and its Syrian protege as much they covet increased revenue from trade.
“Iran is certainly important behind the scenes, and the Iraqis know the Iranians are looking over their shoulders,” said Pollock, now a researcher for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
Pollock noted that Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — a firebrand Iraqi Shiite with tens of thousands of devoted followers — has publicly backed Assad, calling him a “brother.” Iraqi leaders know that hostility toward Syria could invite reprisals against politicians and ordinary civilians in Baghdad, or perhaps against the estimated 1 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, he said.
Still, U.S. officials have privately expressed disappointment over Baghdad’s reluctance to take a more forceful stance against Syrian brutality, which millions of Iraqis witness daily on Arab-language cable news networks.
Only in mid-September, after six months of worsening violence, did the Iraqi government issue a statement that appeared to call for Assad’s ouster. In that statement, on Sept. 20, Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Moussawi was quoted as telling New York Times reporters in Baghdad that Iraq had privately urged Assad to step down. “We are against the one-party rule and the dictatorship that hasn’t allowed for free expression,” Moussawi was quoted as saying.
But less than 24 hours later, the Iraqi government began to backpedal. The same spokesman, Moussawi, told reporters on Sept. 21 that Iraqi leaders had never called for Assad’s resignation and said he had been misquoted. “It was neither the nature nor the followed discourse of the Iraqi government to intervene in the affairs of other countries,” Moussawi said.
Maliki’s broadcast interview Sept. 30 reflected a further retreat. While calling for an end to violence, the prime minister rejected regime change as destabilizing and said the crisis should be resolved gradually through reforms.
Assad has survived by relying on hard-currency reserves and Iranian loans to maintain subsidies for Syria’s military and business elites, ensuring their continued loyalty and preventing the further spread of the country’s pro-democracy uprising, which took hold in March.
Faced with international sanctions — including a new European Union ban on oil imports — Syria also has found support from Iraq and other neighbors as it scrambles to refill its hard-currency coffers, now hemorrhaging at a rate estimated at $1 billion a month.
Iraq and Syria, which share historical and cultural ties, have long been trading partners, and smuggling in border towns has generated immense profits even during times of war. Scores of private traders regularly ferry tons of diesel fuel and other goods in vans and pickup trucks, specially modified with heavy suspensions that cause their backsides to jut out like monster trucks at a car show.
Officials in both countries are cracking down on the black market in favor of legitimate ventures, particularly in the energy field. In early August, as other Arab countries were recalling their ambassadors to Syria, Iraq put on an unusual tour for 100 of Syria’s top government and business leaders. The visitors, led by Syria’s trade minister, were shown factories and refineries and applauded by Iraqis eager to cut deals with their Syrian neighbors.
The week-long visit yielded a new pact designed to boost a soaring bilateral trade that already tops $2 billion a year and will solidify Iraq’s status as Syria’s biggest trading partner. Iraqi Trade Minister Khayrullah Babakir, praising the pact, spoke of a new focus on “empowering the private sector in both countries.” There was no mention of sanctions, or of the Syrian uprising.
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writers Greg Miller and Liz Sly contributed to this report.