Sectarian Strife in Iraq Imperils Entire Region, Analysts Warn

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 16, 2006

BAGHDAD -- While American commanders have suggested that civil war is possible in Iraq, many leaders, experts and ordinary people in Baghdad and around the Middle East say it is already underway, and that the real worry ahead is that the conflict will destroy the flimsy Iraqi state and draw in surrounding countries.

Whether the U.S. military departs Iraq sooner or later, the United States will be hard-pressed to leave behind a country that does not threaten U.S. interests and regional peace, according to U.S. and Arab analysts and political observers.

"We're not talking about just a full-scale civil war. This would be a failed-state situation with fighting among various groups," growing into regional conflict, Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, said by telephone from Amman, Jordan.

"The war will be over Iraq, over its dead body," Hiltermann said.

"All indications point to a current state of civil war and the disintegration of the Iraqi state," Nawaf Obaid, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to the Saudi government, said last week at a conference in Washington on U.S.-Arab relations.

As Iraq's neighbors grapple with the various ideas put forward for solving the country's problems, they uniformly shudder at one proposal: dividing Iraq into separate regions for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and then speeding the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"To envision that you can divide Iraq into three parts is to envision ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, sectarian killing on a massive scale," Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said Oct. 30 at a conference in Washington. "Since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited."

"When the ethnic-religious break occurs in one country, it will not fail to occur elsewhere, too," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Germany's Der Spiegel newsweekly recently. "It would be as it was at the end of the Soviet Union, only much worse. Large wars, small wars -- no one will be able to get a grip on the consequences."

In an analysis published last month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Obaid said sectarian conflicts could make Iraq a battleground for the region.

Obaid described widespread interference by Iranian security forces within Iraq. He urged Saudi Arabia, which is building a 560-mile wall on its border with Iraq, to warn Iran "that if these activities are not checked," Saudi Arabia "will be forced to consider a similar overt and covert program of its own."

In Damascus, a Syrian analyst close to the Assad government warned that other countries would intervene if Iraq descended into full-scale civil war. "Iran will get involved, Turkey will get involved, Saudi Arabia, Syria," said the analyst, who spoke on condition he not be identified further.

"Regional war is very much a possibility," said Hiltermann, the analyst for the International Crisis Group. Iraq's neighbors "are hysterical about Iranian strategic advances in the region," he said.


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