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Syrian opposition issues ultimatum on peace talks

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 20 2014 5:30 p.m. MST

In this Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 file photo, Syrian rebel fighter, Mohammed Sami, 22, a barber, poses for a picture after returning from fighting against Syrian army forces in Aleppo, at a rebel headquarters in Marea on the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria. Syria’s uprising was not destined to be quick. Instead, the largely peaceful protest movement that spread across the nation slowly turned into an armed insurgency and eventually a full-blown civil war. More than 130,000 people have been killed, and more than 2 million more have fled the country.

Muhammed Muheisen, File, Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria's main Western-backed opposition group said Monday that Iran must commit publicly within hours to withdraw its "troops and militias" from Syria and abide by a 2012 transitional roadmap, or else the U.N. should withdraw its invitation for Tehran to take part in a peace conference this week.

The Syrian National Coalition said if those conditions are not met by 7 p.m. GMT, then it will not attend the so-called Geneva 2 talks that are scheduled to begin Wednesday. The U.N. issued a last-minute invitation late Sunday to Iran, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, prompting the Coalition to threaten to skip the peace negotiations and throwing the entire Geneva conference into doubt.

The negotiations, which are intended to bring together the Syrian government and its opponents for the first face-to-face talks in the three-year uprising, aim to broker a political resolution to a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people and touched off the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. Diplomats and political leaders acknowledge that the prospects of achieving such a lofty goal any time soon are slim at best.

Both the government and the opposition have suffered enormous losses, but even now, neither side appears desperate enough for a deal to budge from its entrenched position. At this point, just getting the antagonists into the same room to start what is expected to be a long process that could drag on for years would be perceived as a success.

But those hopes of at least getting the two sides to talk were up in the air again Monday over the invitation extended to Iran.

In its statement, the Coalition called on Iran to make a "clear public commitment" to withdraw all of its troops and militias from Syria and commit to all the terms of a 2012 roadmap for Syria agreed to by world powers that includes a transitional government with full executive powers. That roadmap is the basis for the Geneva talks.

"In case of failure to obtain the pledge, we ask Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to withdraw the invitation to Iran. Otherwise, the Syrian Coalition will not be able to attend the Geneva 2 conference," the Coalition said.

Iran is Assad's strongest regional ally, and has supplied his government with advisers, money and materiel since the 2011 Syrian uprising began. The Islamic Republic's allies, most notably the Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group, have also gone to Syria to help bolster Assad's forces.

The invitation to Tehran from the U.N. secretary-general came after the U.N. chief said he had received assurances from Iran that it accepted the premise of the talks — to establish a transitional government for Syria, which has been led by the Assad family since 1970.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency Monday as saying that Iran will attend the Geneva 2 conference after it was invited, adding that it will not accept any preconditions. She did not elaborate.

Afkham later said doesn't recognize the transitional roadmap, known in diplomatic circles as Geneva I, because it was not part of the conference that drew it up.

"Given that Iran was not present and had no role in the Geneva I conference final statement, it doesn't recognize it," Afkham said in comments posted on Iranian state TV's website.

Saudi Arabia, a main backer of the Syrian opposition and a bitter regional rival of Tehran, said Iran should first approve the 2012 roadmap before being allowed to take part in the peace talks. "Iran is not qualified to attend because it did not declare this (accepting Geneva 1) and has forces on the ground," state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed official as saying.

Invitations to the one-day meeting of foreign ministers at a Montreux hotel had been subject to approval by the initiating states, Russia and the United States, but the two countries had been at an impasse over Iran. The negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition are slated to start Friday in Geneva.

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