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As Syria Descends Into Civil War, Lets Not Lose Focus on Iraq

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The eyes of the international community intensified their gaze on Syria last week when distinguished war reporter, Marie Colvin, and French photographer, Remi Ochlik, were killed in the besieged city of Homs. Their deaths reinforced the severity of the situation in a country that is descending into civil war. Thousands have already been killed in an uprising that began nearly a year ago and shows few promising signs of abating soon. The recent failure at the Security Council to support an Arab League initiated resolution calling for a transition of power in Syria is likely to be recorded in history as one of the UN's gravest failures.

Attention was also paid last week to another country rocked by conflict and riddled with terror as representatives from 40 countries met in London to launch an initiative to restore stability in Somalia. Two decades of war have devastated the country that sits on the Horn of Africa, leaving it one of the world's poorest nations and fertile territory for fanatics and criminals. By any meaningful measure the state has 'failed' and the conference is to be lauded for its efforts to address one of the most dangerous places on earth without resorting to a large military undertaking.

Amidst the barbarity of the Assad regime in Syria and the rampant lawlessness in large parts of Somalia it is easy to lose sight of another troubled country in the region. Last week at least 60 people were killed in a wave of bombings and shootings across Iraq in a series of apparently sectarian attacks. The deaths are the latest in a trend of rising violence in the country following the withdrawal of American troops last December and reflects the fracturing of the fragile political settlement.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is consolidating his grip on power. The day after U.S. forces left, he issued a warrant for the arrest of Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, on charges of terrorism and for the past year he has been acting as justice, interior and defence minister. Troops loyal to the prime minister are reported to have recently arrested a number of people linked to the opposition while Sunni leaders claim their followers are being targeted for intimidation and detention. The Iraqi 'strong-man' syndrome appears to be making a return.

Compounding the deterioration in the domestic security situation in Iraq is the malign influence of Tehran. Many of Iraq's influential political and religious groups already have close ties to their Eastern neighbour. Saudi Arabia has yet to send an ambassador to Baghdad, saying Iraq is a puppet of Shia Iran. America, concerned at the prospect of Iraq slipping into an Iranian orbit, has retained a huge diplomatic presence in the country but its influence is now significantly diminished. A history of hostilities between Iraq and Iran will caution both countries against rushing into a close relationship but with the Assad regime increasingly likely to fall - it is a matter of when not if - Tehran would welcome a new ally in the region.

It is incumbent upon America and the United Kingdom, the protagonists in the 2003 invasion, to intensify their diplomatic efforts in helping to stabilise a situation that risks plunging Iraq into a new civil war. It is incumbent upon them because of the ultimate sacrifice they asked of thousands of their service personnel; it would be a tragic final insult if their deaths were to facilitate the rise of another authoritarian leader that suppresses his own people. It is incumbent upon them because of the great toll that was paid by millions of Iraqis caught up in the war; they deserve better after years of bitter conflict than to be left with a situation arguably no better than under Saddam Hussein. And it is incumbent upon them because of the crucial importance of a stable, progressive Iraq for the security of the broader region.

As we focus our attention, rightly so, on the deteriorating situation in Syria and the deteriorated state of Somalia, lets ensure our gaze doesn't drift too far from the fragile conditions in Iraq, where the outcome could have dangerous repercussions in the region for decades to come.