News / Middle East

Syria Spillover Worries Iraqi Officials

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Feb. 27, 2013.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Feb. 27, 2013.
Edward Yeranian
— The deepening sectarian conflict in Syria is aggravating an already tense sectarian divide in neighboring Iraq.

Syrian rebel fighters and Iraqi government soldiers clashed near the Rabiya border post as it was captured by rebels last weekend.

Then on Monday, Iraqi officials said at least 42 Syrian soldiers who had sought refuge in Iraq were killed in a well-coordinated ambush by Iraqi Sunni insurgents. That attack in Iraq's restive western province of Anbar raised concerns that Iraq could be drawn into the Syrian civil war.

Iraq's Parliament Speaker Osama Nujaify, a Sunni, blasted the Iraqi army for allegedly taking sides in the conflict in Syria.

Nujaify said that border incidents must be avoided and that the Iraqi army must not meddle in internal Syrian affairs so that Iraq's own deep internal conflict is not exacerbated by outside conflicts.

Iraqi Sunnis have been holding mostly peaceful protests in the major Sunni population centers of western Iraq since late December. They are demanding that Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki release Sunni prisoners and share political power with Sunnis, whom they complain are increasingly marginalized.

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Maliki warned that if rebels win in Syria, it could destabilize the region. He stopped short, though, of expressing direct support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is from Syria's Shi'ite-offshoot Alawite community.

Maliki reaction

Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University sees in Maliki a strong Shi'ite sectarian bias that is pushing him to support Bashar al-Assad mostly on sectarian grounds.

“Nouri Maliki and the Shia-led government have decided that the defeat of Bashar is a defeat for them," he said. "This has become this big Sunni-Shi'ite fight."

"Some years back I used to have fairly candid conversations with Nouri Maliki and he looks at the region through a sectarian lens," Ajami continued. "He sees Turkey as a Sunni power, a neo-Ottomanist strategy and he sees the Saudis and the Gulfies as Sunni countries invested in the fall of his Shia-led government in Iraq.”

But Middle East analyst Gary Sick said that Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia are furthering sectarian tensions in Iraq and promoting regional instability.

He said Saudi Arabia has not diplomatically recognized the Iraqi government.

"Because of the dissatisfaction [of] countries like Saudi Arabia" with the Shia-led government in Iraq, Sick said, it "started a process of vitriol that really is now getting worse and worse."

Iraq war unlikely

Still, analyst Ajami said that the sectarian divide is unliklely to lead to an overthrow of Maliki by the Iraq Sunnis.  

"I don't see a big war for Baghdad," he said. "I don't see the Sunnis in the Anbar, without money, without oil treasury, willing and able to bring down Nouri al-Maliki.”

Sick, however, predicts seerious consequences if Sunni rebels are victorious in Syria.

“One of the Iraqi ministers said over the weekend that the arms that were supplied to the insurgents in Syria, it was like supplying arms to insurgents in Iraq because they were definitely going to make their way into Iraq," he said.

"The Free Syrian Army or the opposition to Assad is almost overwhelmingly Sunni and they in many cases have tribal relationships that run right across the border into Anbar province,” Sick added.

A U.N. report issued in December described the fight in Syria as “overtly sectarian.” Anti-Assad rebel forces reportedly include Sunnis from Afghanistan, Libya and other countries.

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