BAGHDAD - Syria should sign an Arab League-proposed peace plan as soon as possible if it wants to avert economic penalties from Arab states over its eight-month crackdown on protesters, the head of the Arab League said on Thursday.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said he held talks with senior officials in Iraq, which borders Syria, to "explore whether the Iraqi government is willing to exert its influence with Syria" to agree to the Arab plan.

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"What we expect is as soon as possible Syria will accept to sign the protocol... Now it is up to Syria, the ball is in the Syrian court," Elaraby said at a joint news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari in Baghdad.

"It is up to them. (If) they want to stop the economic sanctions, they sign."

Already hit by economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, Syria now faces further sanctions from neighboring Arab nations in response to its violent crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria's neighbors Turkey and Jordan are calling on Assad to step down, with Ankara imposing 30 percent duty on imports from Syria in retaliation for a similar tax imposed on Turkish goods.

Iraq, however, has resisted sanctions against Damascus. Officials say they are worried unrest in Syria could spill over the border and upset Iraq's delicate sectarian balance.

The Arab League has repeatedly extended deadlines for Syria to agree to a plan that would see Arab monitors oversee its withdrawal of troops from towns. The latest expired on Sunday.

Syria says the Arab proposal to admit observers infringes on its sovereignty, and has asked for clarification.

Elaraby said no new deadline has been set and the Arab League's sanctions have taken effect on Nov. 27. He also said the League is likely to meet representatives of the Syrian opposition by next week.

Speaking alongside Elaraby, Zebari said Iraq was in talks with both the Syrian government and the opposition to try to end the bloodshed.

"We have good contact with the Syrian government. We can play a responsible role in supporting the Arab initiative," Zebari said.

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On reaching out to the Syrian opposition, he said: "The call is in its initial stage really. There are many opposition groups but there are contacts with some of them that will materialize soon."

On Saturday, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Reuters that Iraq was ready to mediate between the Syrian government and opponents of Assad to help end months of violence in the neighboring country.

Iraq's Shi'ite leaders are concerned that turmoil in Syria could bring a hardline Sunni leader to power should protests lead to the downfall of Assad, who is facing increasing international condemnation over a crackdown on protesters.

Pipeline blown up by rebel saboteurs

A Syrian pipeline carrying crude from oilfields in the east of the country was blown up near the restive city of Homs on Thursday, according to anti-government activists and the official news agency SANA.

Clouds of thick black smoke towered over a high-rise suburb of the city, the epicentre of popular unrest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in March.

Refinery towers and storage tanks were visible in the background of one SANA photograph.

Rami Abdulrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the pipeline fed a refinery in Homs.

But SANA said an armed terrorist group had attacked a section of pipeline taking crude beyond Homs directly to Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast.

Homs is a city of 800,000 people where activists say about 1,500 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown on anti-government protests.

"Authorities rushed to the spot, extinguished the fire, stopped pumping oil into the targeted pipeline and shifted it to alternative pipes," the agency said.

The Homs refinery serves part of Syria's domestic requirement for oil products. Saboteurs had already blown up the pipeline to the coast near Homs in July, according to SANA.


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