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Red Cross halts some monitoring inside Syria

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The International Committee of the Red Cross has suspended efforts to monitor treatment of detainees inside Syria because of difficulties working with the regime, ending one of the few independent efforts to investigate allegations of violence and torture inside the country.

The decision by the Geneva-based organization, confirmed Thursday, came amid new reports of sabotage near the restive city of Homs, including what opposition groups described as a successful attack on a major oil pipeline near the city. The official Syrian Arab News Agency blamed the bombing on “terrorists,” suggesting that it was carried out by one of several groups that have recently launched attacks against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The ICRC had sought permission to make regular visits to makeshift detention centers where Syrian authorities reportedly are keeping as many as 14,000 people who have been locked up since the uprising began nine months ago. But after managing only a single, carefully choreographed visit to one facility in September, the group decided to halt the effort, Red Cross officials said.

“In order to obtain an objective view on the conditions and treatment of detainees, certain conditions have to be met during the ICRC’s visit to detainees,” said Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the ICRC in Washington. “Its delegates must be able to tour the facilities, talk in private with the detainees of their choice and repeat visits as often as deemed necessary.”

Such a public spat is rare, as the ICRC generally keeps its disputes with governments private to preserve a neutral posture while ensuring continued access to detainees, war refugees and others in conflict zones.

At a news conference in Geneva, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger described the situation in Syria as “extremely serious” but said it had not risen to the level of civil war, as the agency defines the term. The ICRC routinely assesses violent conflicts to determine whether they qualify as civil wars subject to the rules of the Geneva Conventions.

“The fact that we have not yet qualified it as such is not a specific judgment on what we feel about the violence and its humanitarian consequences,” Kellenberger said.

He told reporters that, despite the halt in prison visits, the organization continues to deliver food and other supplies to hard-hit Syrian cities and that the ICRC has tripled its budget for Syria in anticipation of a growing need for assistance.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, the Iraqi government on Thursday offered to use its influence with the Syrian government to persuade Assad to accept a peace deal. The offer, an attempt to salvage a faltering Arab League peace plan, was unveiled during a visit to the Iraqi capital by the league’s secretary general, Nabil Elaraby.

“The Iraqi government told us that it will carry out contacts with the Syrian government to resolve this issue,” Elaraby said at a joint news conference alongside Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Zebari said Iraq would “exert efforts and discuss with the Syrian government how to remove all the obstacles facing this initiative.”

Iraq abstained from voting on an Arab League resolution suspending Syria’s membership and imposing sanctions, in part because of fears that the unrest could disrupt Iraq’s own fragile sectarian balance and because of concerns about the effect on Iraq’s economy of restricting trade with its neighbor.

Zebari said in a telephone interview later that Baghdad, nonetheless, supports the league’s initiative to stop the violence and is hoping Iraq’s abstention will give it some leverage with Assad. The Arab League has repeatedly extended deadlines for Syria to agree to allow human rights monitors into the country, but it has been rebuffed.

“Our proposal is that we can help the Arab League on that, to convince the Syrians that this is your chance,” Zebari said. “Otherwise this could go out of the Arab League, and the U.N. and the international community could take action.”

Sly reported from Baghdad.

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