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Middle East analysts are warning that the emerging sectarian and ethnic divisions in Syria’s civil war could destabilize neighboring Iraq.
Between 2005 and 2006, sectarian tensions flared into open Shia-Sunni militia warfare throughout Iraq. The conflict, which caused the deaths of tens of thousands – and the migration of millions, threatened to shatter Iraq’s fragile federation.
US officials say that some of the same extremist groups responsible for the fighting in Iraq have moved their operations to Syria; they specifically point to al-Qaida cells from Iraq and Iranian-backed sectarian militias.
They say that some of these groups see the Syrian battlefront as a continuation of the sectarian conflict in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
However, the greater danger is that different ethnic factions in Iraq now appear to be backing opposing sides of the conflict in Syria.
Western diplomats, including US security experts, say that Iraq’s embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been covertly following Iran’s support of the Bashar Assad regime.
While the majority Shia-led Baghdad government has denied such claims, Iraq’s mostly Sunni Kurds seem to be leaning toward the opposition.
In June, the Kurdish Regional Government ignored Baghdad’s order to close off the border to Syrian refugees, and a month later Massoud Barzani, the President of the Iraqi Kurdish Region, publicly confirmed that his government was providing anti-Assad fighters with military training.
Iraqi Kurds appear to be creating their own foreign policy and in the interim appear to be following Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition.
Some analysts say that the Kurds believe a post-Assad period will increase the chance of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria.
The opposing views regarding Syria come at a period of worsening relations between the Kurds and Baghdad. In November, Barzani deployed 30,000 of his armed Peshmerga forces to a disputed territory in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk where they faced off with elite forces from the Iraqi Army.
The tense standoff, which began over disputed oil rights and privileges, lasted for two months and threatened to ignite yet another Arab-Kurdish war, which could fragment the country.
On December 26, Iraqi Kurds shut down oil exports after Baghdad suspended payment to international companies producing crude oil in Northern Iraq.
Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq’s deputy prime minister for energy affairs, said Baghdad had withheld payment because the Kurds had failed to export the agreed amount of oil.