Sectarian splits and oil expose Iraq's faultlines

Thu Dec 22, 2011 3:33pm GMT

By Patrick Markey

BAGHDAD Dec 22 (Reuters) - With U.S. troops gone, can Iraq withstand the political infighting, sectarian violence and struggles for land and oil that threaten to pull it apart?

It has been a disastrous few days. Accused by the Shi'ite prime minister of running death squads, the Sunni vice president has taken refuge in the Kurdish north, exploiting the central government's lack of authority in the oil-producing region.

The power-sharing government in Baghdad is in disarray, with Sunnis reinforced in their suspicions that Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is bent on sidelining them.

And the bombers are back: at least 63 people were killed and 194 wounded on Thursday in more than 10 explosions across Baghdad, mostly targeting Shi'ite districts.

Iraqi and foreign analysts say talk of the country breaking up looks premature. But the risks would increase sharply if there were major and prolonged sectarian violence, and if Iraq's neighbours, Shi'ite power Iran and Sunni Gulf states, intervened in support of breakaway movements.

The key question mark is neighbouring Syria: Shi'ite leaders worry Syria's turmoil will spill over the border, encouraging protests in the western Sunni provinces, especially if hardline Sunnis replace President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Maliki's Shi'ite-led government is close to Iran, and the fall of Tehran's ally Assad could shift the regional power balance.

"The main danger Iraq faces with Syria is for its unity," said a senior Iraqi Shi'ite lawmaker. "Many powers see dividing Iraq as in their favour. If you encourage provinces on the borders, it is like cutting the cake. The question of Iraq's unity is still not resolved."   Continued...

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