Iraq warns against arming Syrian rebels

* Iraq takes more moderate position on Syria

* Maliki appeals as 'Friends of Syria' meet in Turkey

BAGHDAD, April 1 (Reuters) - Iraq on Sunday warned Arab

countries against supplying weapons and financial support to

rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying

such moves risked escalating the conflict.

"We want to extinguish the fire by draining the sources of

force, we want to find a peaceful solution to the crisis," Iraqi

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters at a press

conference.

"We reject any arming of the opposition, we reject attempts

to bring down the regime by force, because it will leave a wider

crisis in the region," he added.

Maliki made the appeal as foreign ministers from around 70

countries including the United States and leading European and

Gulf powers met in Istanbul to try to agree how best to support

the Syrian opposition.

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has adopted a more moderate

position on Syria than Sunni Gulf neighbours Qatar and Saudi

Arabia which have advocated supplying arms to the Syrian rebels.

If Assad were to lose power, Iraqi Shi'ite leaders are

worried their own country's fragile sectarian balance among

Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurds could be unsettled, especially if a

hardline Sunni regime replaced the Assad government.

Both Iraq and Syria have close ties to Shi'ite power Iran,

which is caught in a regional power struggle for more influence

with Sunni Arab Gulf countries.

At a summit in Baghdad last week, Arab League members agreed

to endorse a six-point peace plan drawn up by special United

Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for a

ceasefire and talks with the opposition.

On Sunday, Western and Arab nations met in Istanbul for the

"Friends of Syria" Conference, seeking to exert more pressure on

Assad who accepted the plan but has so far failed to implement

it.

The participants are sceptical of his promises to end a year

of bloodshed, but are not expected to agree to arm rebels or to

fully recognise an opposition council.

"This conference will only hear the same voice that calls

for armament," Maliki said.

The Saudi foreign minister said on Saturday it was a "duty"

to arm the Syrian rebels, but Western powers are anxious not to

be drawn into a possibly intractable conflict.

Despite Annan's mediation efforts, violence has raged

unabated. Opposition activists reported at least 16 people

killed on Sunday, mostly in clashes in northwestern and eastern

Syria.

Syrian media derided the Istanbul meeting, with the ruling

Baath party newspaper describing it as "a regional and

international scramble to find ways of killing more Syrians and

destroying their society and country, to reach the broad goal of

weakening Syria".

Iraq itself is trying to rebuild after years of war

following the 2003 invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam

Hussein. Insurgents and suicide bombers often crossed the porous

border from Syria during the height of the country's conflict.

(Writing by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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