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Iraq War and Sectarian Tension in the Middle East

By March 25, 2013

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nouri maliki profileUS Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday, holding talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Reuters cites US officials saying Kerry pressed Maliki to do more to prevent Iranians from using the Iraqi airspace to transport military equipment to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Intelligence reports speak of daily Iranian flights via Iraq extending a crucial lifeline to the embattled Assad regime, with Iraqi customs officials turning a blind eye. While Iraq denies complicity in the weapons shipments, it is no secret that Maliki's Shiite-led government, egged on by Iran, feels threatened by a possible victory of the Sunni rebels next door.

This new-found love between Maliki and Assad is heavy on historical irony. During the height of the Iraqi civil war (2006-08), the Syrian regime was widely believed to have opened its borders to foreign (Sunni) Islamist fighters who travelled to Iraq to fight the US troops and the Shiites alike. Back then, Maliki railed against Syrians shielding Al Qaeda terrorists and former Saddam Hussein's lieutenants.

But Maliki has had to adjust to the new regional dynamics, marked by a "cold war" between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The fall of Iraq under Iran's influence and the rising Sunni-Shiite tension across the region are among the unintended legacies of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Maliki, a Shiite, clearly sees Assad's Iran-backed dictatorship - dominated by Alawites, Syria's Shiite minority - preferable to a state collapse and the emergence of a Sunni government backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Maliki also faces growing unrest in Iraq's Sunni areas, amidst first signs that Sunni militants from both sides of the border are joining forces.

Read more: The Iraq War's Effect on the Middle East

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Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images.

 

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