Iraq's Foreign Minister Dismisses Claims of Outside Pressure on Syria Vote

Iraq's foreign minister on Monday insisted his country was not pressured into abstaining from a vote to suspend Syria from the Arab League, saying Baghdad does not take orders from others.

Iraq was the only country to abstain when the Arab League voted Saturday to suspend Syria because of its bloody, 8-month-old crackdown on protesters calling for reforms. Iraq's relationship with neighboring Iran, a Shiite-majority country with close ties to Syria, has sparked questions about whether Iraq's abstention was due in part to Iranian pressure.

"There have been accusations against the Iraqi government of following orders from another country," Hoshyar Zebari said. "As the foreign minister of Iraq, I deny such allegations."

Zebari didn't name any specific country, but Iran maintains a strong influence in Iraq. Tehran has also been a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, though Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Zebari said Iraq's abstention from the vote does not mean Baghdad was taking sides or was against the Syrian people's right to choose their own political system.

But, he said Iraq had to take into account "international and regional calculations."

"Syria is a neighboring country and what happens there will have an effect on us," he said.

Iraqi officials fear that any possible change in Syria could bring on a Sunni-led regime backed by Saudi Arabia, which already has tense relations with Iraq. Such a move would create more problems for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, and possibly stir up tensions with Iraq's Sunni minority.

Zebari also hinted at another Iraqi concern.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees live in Syria, having fled Iraq during the years after the U.S.-led invasion when sectarian violence was rampant. Most of the Iraqis living in Syria are Sunnis, and many among Iraq's Shiite-dominated government believe members of

Saddam Hussein's Baath party are hiding among them, waiting to come back to Iraq.

Zebari described the Arab League decision as "tough," saying that measures by the organization against Syria should have been taken gradually.