Many officials here fear that a growing Iraqi Sunni protest movement that has found inspiration from the uprising next door could quickly turn into all-out revolt in regions that formed the heart of the Sunni insurgency over the past decade.
“We will be the most affected if violence spreads in a way that cannot be controlled,” Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said in an interview. “What worries us is that there is no plan to control things in Syria, to find a peaceful political solution or a type of change that can be controlled.”
The Iraqi government is wedged between Iran, a Shiite Islamic republic that has provided crucial aid to Assad, and the Sunni countries that support the Syrian opposition, which include Turkey and Persian Gulf states.
Maliki, though a Shiite often aligned with Iran, is no fan of Syria’s embattled president. Maliki believes Assad helped fuel Iraq’s sectarian war by permitting weapons and fighters to stream across the border in the past decade. But analysts and officials say Iraq’s premier has shown a growing willingness to turn a blind eye to Iran’s aid for Assad because he feels increasingly threatened by the prospect of a rebel victory in Damascus.
“This is drawing the gulf states back into this part of the Middle East in a way they haven’t been since the Gulf War, and it’s drawing them in a way that is deeply sectarian,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former senior State Department official. “For Iraq’s Sunnis, this is an opportunity to get patronage or support, but it’s in a context of increasingly fierce sectarian polarization in the Arab world, and that’s quite serious.”
Iraq’s minority Sunnis took to the streets nationwide late last year, using Arab Spring-like tactics to protest what they consider their political marginalization after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni. Since then, as rebels have made inroads across Syria, Iraq’s Sunnis have become increasingly resolute, Iraqi officials and Western diplomats say.
“Many people are emboldened, as they think this is their chance,” said a senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a delicate policy issue. “There is increased pressure on Baghdad. They [the Sunnis] tell themselves, ‘The tide is flowing our way.’ ”
Remnants of Iraq’s once-
potent Sunni insurgency are probably vying for a comeback, the diplomat added.