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Iraq's Maliki says Bahrain may ignite sectarian war

An anti-government protester flees after riot police fire rounds of tear gas to disperse them in the mainly Shi'ite village of Diraz, West of Manama, March 25, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s Shi’ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, said on Friday military intervention by Sunni Arab neighbours in Bahrain could spark a sectarian war in the region and must end.

Bahrain has witnessed a month of protests from mainly Shi’ite demonstrators seeking constitutional reform. Its ruling al Khalifa family, from the minority Sunni population, has cracked down on the rallies and called in troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

“The situation in Bahrain is different from those in Libya and Egypt. In Libya and Egypt the issue is not sectarian while in Bahrain it has become between Sunnis and Shi’ites,” Maliki told the BBC Arabic television service in an interview aired on Friday.

“We did not move to support the Shi’ites in Bahrain but we called for interference in Bahraini affairs to be stopped and don’t want to make it a sectarian issue. Because if it happens, it will be like a snowball, it will get bigger if it is ignored ... The region may be drawn into a sectarian war.”

Maliki has previously criticised the intervention by Gulf states in Bahrain. Shi’ites in Iraq have also demonstrated in support of Bahraini demonstrators.

Like Bahrain, Iraq has a Shi’ite majority that complained about decades of oppression under a Sunni ruling class.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion which toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and enabled Iraq’s Shi’ite majority to take power, Baghdad has had uneasy relations with its Sunni Arab neighbours.

Tensions remain between Iraq’s Shi’ites and Sunnis eight years after the invasion which unleashed a sectarian war that peaked in 2006-7.

Reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; editing by Elizabeth Piper