Islamist militant networks are increasingly forging links across the border of Syria and Iraq in moves that are fueling sectarian tensions in a region that has suffered from years of bloodshed, the United Nations warned Thursday.
“The ongoing conflict in Syria has added a regional dimension to sectarian tensions and is affording terrorist networks the occasion to forge links across the border and expand their support base,” Reuters quoted U.N. special envoy to Iraq Nickolay Mladenov as telling the 15-nation Security Council.
Violence in Iraq reached new highs in 2013, when nearly 8,000 civilians were killed.
Its political elite remains deeply divided along sectarian lines, as it has been since after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 11 years ago this month.
Mladenov said the combination of a divided leadership in Iraq, unresolved constitutional issues between communities and the growing militant threat coming from Syria have created a situation that is “fragile and explosive.”
Since the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq last year hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in attacks, mostly in suicide bombings that are believed to be orchestrated by Islamist groups. Such bombings occur virtually every day.
In neighboring Syria over 140,000 people have died in a three-year-old civil war, while 2.5 million have fled the fighting, many of them to other countries. The United Nations says Islamist militant groups in Syria linked to al Qaeda are killing civilians and preventing aid delivery.
Mladenov said the only way Iraqis can stop the violence is through a political process that will bridge differences, increase development and make the government more inclusive.
He added: “You cannot resolve the problem of violence of terrorism simply by security measures.”
“You need to look at the inclusion of communities and decision making. You need to look at the economic development and the protection of human rights,
the rule of law.”
But Mladenov was not optimistic.
“The signs are not promising for an early resolution of the crisis,” he said.
Conflict spillover in Lebanon
In a related story, a U.N. official said that the influx of almost 1 million refugees from Syria into neighboring Lebanon poses a
serious threat to the already fragile country.
“There is not a single country in the world today that is shouldering as much in proportion to its size as Lebanon,” Reuters quoted Ninette Kelley, regional representative for Lebanon for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as saying.
“If this country is not bolstered, then the very real prospect of it collapsing and the conflict of Syria spreading full force to Lebanon becomes much more likely,” she said during a visit to Washington.
Last month, top U.N. officials said that as Syria’s grinding conflict enters its fourth bloody year, Syrians are set to replace Afghans as the world’s largest refugee population.
The United nations has estimated that $1.7 billion is needed for this year to help the United Nations, aid organizations, the Lebanese government and others to support refugees from Syria in Lebanon, and to mitigate the impact of the refugee crisis there.
So far, pledges have been made for 14 percent of that amount, the U.N. said.