Iraq's Sadr backs embattled Assad
AFP, Thursday 17 Nov 2011
Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's radical Shiite cleric, proclaims support for Bashar al-Assad's regime despite international opposition and membership suspension decision by the Arab League against the domestically-turbulent Syria

Iraq's radical anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has expressed support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even as much of the Arab world turns against the embattled strongman.

Assad has since March been trying to crush a popular uprising against his government, in which over 3,500 people have been killed, according to UN figures.

The Arab League on November 12 voted to suspend Syria, although Iraq itself abstained, and Arab leaders on Wednesday gave Assad three days to halt his "bloody repression" of protests or face sanctions.

But there is "a big difference" between what is happening in Syria and the "great revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen," Sadr said in a statement received by AFP on Thursday, referring to other Arab states that have seen popular uprisings this year.

"One of the reasons behind this difference is that Bashar al-Assad is against the American and Israeli presence and his attitudes are clear, not like those who collapsed before him, or will collapse," said the statement released by his office in the city of Najaf, reiterating points Sadr made in August.

"Some of your lands are still occupied," Sadr said, referring to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which the Jewish state seized from Syria in 1967.

Sadr also warned against throwing Syria into "an abyss of terrorism and fragmentation in the event of a vacuum in power."

"We support your demonstrations to show your opinion," Sadr said of the anti-Assad camp.

"But there are large groups that ... are with keeping the government," he said, calling for dialogue and an end to the conflict.