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Democracy was the order of the day as the tanks rolled into Baghdad in 2003. No matter how many died in the initial attack and the ensuing years of bloody sectarian warfare, democracy – that golden ideal – would justify it all.

Nouri al-Maliki, the democratically elected Shia president of Iraq, and his government are supposed to be the standard bearers of that democracy. Unfortunately, their response to the Syrian uprising has been far from golden. Despite Mr Assad’s inexcusable use of violence, the Iraqi government continues to maintain a friendly relationship with the Syrian regime. Since the unrest began 5 month ago, Iraq has received numerous official Syrian delegations, agreed to an Iran-Syria oil pipeline across Iraq, and publicly supported the regime crackdown. In a television interview, Mr Maliki urged the protestors not to ‘sabotage’ the Syrian government.

The 2003 invasion was meant to plant a seed of democracy in the Middle East, providing an example for other nations in the region blighted by autocratic regimes. Unfortunately for that argument, none of the recent revolutions in the Arab Spring were even remotely inspired by the Iraqi model. And while Iraq’s attitude to the Syrian protestors has further refuted that claim, it has also shed light on Iraq’s own position. Heavily dependent on Iran for fuel, it has gradually shifted into an Iranian led axis and will now feel compelled to tow the official party line coming from Tehran.

The Syrian crisis has also revealed, even exacerbated, ongoing sectarian tensions within Iraq. While the Shia majority government, allied with Shiite Iran and the Alawite regime in Damascus, has thrown its support behind Assad, the Iraqi Sunni leadership have backed the protestors demanding change.

The Iraqi Shiite government’s attitude to democracy in the region seems to be sharply drawn along sectarian lines. It’s nonchalant attitude to the increasingly violent government crackdown is in sharp contrast to its reaction to the Shiite led demonstrations in Bahrain. Reacting to the Bahraini monarchy’s brutal response, Mr Maliki’s allies walked out of parliament in protest, sent an aid ship to the demonstrators and called on the Bahraini ruling family to step down.

Iran’s creeping influence on Iraq has long been suspected. But President Maliki’s actions on Syria certainly don’t do his pro-democracy credentials any good. He has distanced himself from US concerns, based Iraqi foreign policy on sectarianism and openly supported a brutal dictatorship. Not a great result for the US invasion.

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