Iraq tightens security at Syria border to stop arms flow
Reuters 9:15 a.m. CST, February 18, 2012
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq said on Saturday it had reinforced security along its Syrian border to prevent arms smuggling, after reports fighters and weapons were crossing into Syria where President Bashar al-Assad has been facing an increasingly armed revolt.
The Shi'ite-led Iraqi government is worried the unrest in Syria, now nearly a year old, could spill across the porous 600 km (373 mile) frontier and upset its own fragile sectarian balance.
Iraq's Shi'ites fear a toppling of Assad, himself from a minority Shi'ite sect, could bring hardline Sunnis to power, a shift which could threaten Iraqi Shi'ites' newly-acquired dominance since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that al Qaeda in Iraq, which has hardline Sunni Islamist convictions, may have been behind bombings in Damascus and Syria's second city, Aleppo.
The allegation came as Iraqi officials and arms dealers reported an influx of weapons and Sunni Muslim insurgents into Syria. Al Qaeda's leader Ayman al Zawahri has backed the revolt against Assad, in which more than 5,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.
"Necessary measures have been taken to consolidate control over the borders with Syria which is witnessing turbulence that encourages infiltration and all kinds of smuggling, especially arms," a statement from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office.
The statement -- which came after Maliki met top security officials, including the acting defense minister, the national security advisor and commander of border forces -- did not explicitly state what measures had been taken.
Relations between Syria and Iraq's U.S.-backed government nosedived when Baghdad blamed Damascus for not doing enough to stem the flow of foreign fighters entering Iraq across the two countries' border during the height of sectarian violence in 2006-07.
Awash with weapons since the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still plagued by violence from al-Qaeda affiliates, Sunni Islamists, fighters tied to Saddam's Baathist party, Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias and criminal gangs.
Zawahri, whose group has been struggling to regain its foothold since the killing of former leader Osama bin Laden, has urged Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to join Syrian rebels.
The Arab League opened the door for governments to arm anti-Assad rebels when it passed a resolution in Cairo earlier early this month urging Arabs to "provide all kinds of political and material support" to the opposition.