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Iraqis warily watch US move Syria into crosshairs

Iraq is still dealing with the long-term consequences of the US invasion, and Iraqis have doubts that a US intervention in Syria would have better results.

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Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, seen here at the first International Conference of Council for Arab and International Relations in Kuwait City in February 2013, is urging diplomatic steps in Syria. “I believe there are measures short of war that can take place, including a no-fly zone, and safe havens in various parts of Syria,” he said recently. “If it doesn’t work, then one can think of surgical military intervention.”

Stephanie Mcgehee/Reuters/File

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Iraqis, still picking up the pieces after a US invasion of their country, have watched with trepidation as the international community edges closer to what could be American-led intervention into Syria.

The White House said today that there was "little doubt" that the Syrian regime carried out a chemical attack on civilians, and the US military appears ready to strike Syria at a moment’s notice if US President Obama gives the order, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday. France, Britain, the Arab League, and others have now called for international action against the Syrian government.

With the memory of the American-led intervention in Iraq still fresh, many locals here hesitate to support the mounting international calls for action against Syria.

“According to our own experience here in Iraq, America invaded us and we were hoping for the best. Now all of our sectarian problems and violence are a result of the American intervention. If the Americans intervene in Syria, maybe the Syrians will have all the same problems as us,” says Ahmad Abu Haider, shopkeeper in Baghdad.

The US withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq in December 2011, ending its nearly nine-year military presence. Today Iraq remains insecure, with frequent bombings in the capital and widespread corruption and inefficiency. Iraqis blame many of these problems largely on the American invasion.

A number of Iraqi politicians are also urging the West to pursue further diplomatic options before launching an attack on Syria. 

“I believe there are measures short of war that can take place, including a no-fly zone, and safe havens in various parts of Syria … and to increase the political pressure on the government and engage the Russian federation very closely,” says Ayad Allawi, a prominent Iraqi politician and former prime minister. “If it doesn’t work, then one can think of surgical military intervention.”    

Iraq’s experience has created conflicted feelings among Iraqis. They understand that Syrian civilians need protection, but they worry about the potential long-term consequences of an intervention, such as the destruction of infrastructure and the creation of perpetual instability. 

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“I’m against this military intervention. We were hoping the Americans would intervene here before 2003, but 10 years later it’s made many problems for us,” says Mohammed Abu Faisal, an accountant in Baghdad.

The horror of a government using chemical weapons against its own people is not lost on Iraqis. The last chemical attack like the alleged Syria incident took place in northern Iraq in 1988, when Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds in Halabja, killing thousands of people.

If Obama orders an intervention in Syria, the US will be able to draw on the American experience in Iraq, which offers a number of lessons for avoiding a repeat of mistakes made here, say Iraqis. Following the invasion of Iraq, American forces and diplomats dissolved the army and created a policy to keep high-ranking party members from the Saddam regime from rejoining the new government. These policies, which fueled sectarianism and disenfranchised many who could have helped the new government, have been widely criticized as destabilizing Iraq and creating problems that persist even today.

“My advice to Obama is not to send troops, only use airplanes and missiles. Also, make deals with the jihadis and ruling party so they settle down after Assad,” says Jassim Mohammed, a fruit vender in Baghdad. 

Many Iraqis say they would prefer that regional powers to deal with the Syria issue.

“If it’s proved that Assad was responsible for this attack, then we should bring Assad in front of an international court. Why are we going to America for help when there is the Arab League?” says Mohammad Abdul Waheed, a former soldier who is now unemployed.

But Mr. Faisal, the accountant, believes the US may be the only country capable of intervening.  

“If it’s proved that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, then I think there should be an intervention. The Americans are the only ones who can do it. They are like the police of the world.”

On Tuesday, the Arab League placed blame for the chemical attack on the Syrian government and called for the United Nations Security Council to take action. So far Russia and China have blocked the UN from taking action in Syria, making it unlikely it will authorize action despite the backing of the Arab League. The Arab organization’s backing may, however, serve as the de facto support needed for an American intervention.

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