BAGHDAD — Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cautions that a victory for rebels fighting to overthrow the government in neighboring Syria will spark a sectarian war in his own country and Lebanon that would create a new haven for al-Qaida that would destabilize the whole Middle East.
The comments by Maliki in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday marked one of his strongest warnings yet about the turmoil that toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could create in the Middle East.
It comes as his government confronts growing tensions of its own between the Shiite majority and an increasingly restive Sunni minority nearly a decade after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Fighting in Syria has sharp sectarian overtones, with predominantly Sunni rebels battling a regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot Shiite Islam.
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Assad's main allies are Shiite Iran and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Maliki also is a Shiite and his sect dominates Iraq's government.
His comments reflect growing fears by many Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere that Sunnis would come to dominate Syria should Assad be pushed from power.
The toppling of Assad would deal a serious blow to the regional influence of Syria's patron Iran, which has built increasingly strong relations with Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.
Iraq has tried to maintain a neutral stance toward the civil war in Syria, saying that the aspirations of the Syrian people should be met through peaceful means.
Speaking from his office in a Saddam Hussein-era palace inside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, Maliki reiterated his stance that foreign military intervention is not a solution to ending the crisis in Syria.
He called on outside countries to "be more reasonable regarding Syria."
"If the world does not agree to support a peaceful solution through dialogue . . . then I see no light at the end of the tunnel.". Maliki said.
"Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish each other off," he said. "If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq."
Maliki, 62, has long been accused by many Sunnis of promoting his Shiite sect at their expense and for being too closely aligned with neighboring Iran.
His government has faced two months of unexpectedly resilient protests from the Sunni minority, whose members held many senior positions in Saddam's regime and lost their political prominence to the Shiites after he was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The Sunni rallies, which have been largely peaceful, erupted in Iraq's western Sunni heartland of Anbar in late December following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of the most senior Sunni politicians in government.
Although the detentions were the spark for the demonstrations, the rallies tap into deeper Sunni grievances, drawing on feelings of discrimination at the hands of Maliki's government.
Maliki and his political allies initially dismissed the protesters. But as their rallies gained strength and spread throughout parts of Iraq where Sunnis are concentrated, the stern-faced premier began to offer concessions.
His government bowed to one of the protesters' early demands and released more than 2,000 detainees, including some held without charge. He also set up a committee to examine other grievances.
He vowed Tuesday to let the protests continue as long as they remain peaceful.
But he made a point of distinguishing between the protesters and the political leaders who back them.
He also suggested, as he has done in the past, that outside influences — an apparent allusion to predominantly Sunni countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states — are helping to fuel the unrest.
"What is going on in Iraq is connected to what is happening in the region. It is also connected to the results of the so-called the Arab Spring and some sectarian policies in the region," he said.
"Our patience will continue because we believe that there are people in these provinces that are patriotic and they reject sectarianism, believe in the unity of the country and denounce the voices uttering sectarian words."
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