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Iraqi leader warns Syria war could spread

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister warned Wednesday that a victory for rebels in the Syrian civil war would create a new extremist haven and destabilize the wider Middle East, sparking sectarian wars in his own country and in Lebanon.

Nouri al-Maliki stopped short of voicing outright support for President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime in Syria.

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But his comments in an interview marked one of his strongest warnings yet about the turmoil the collapse of the Syrian government could create.

The prime minister’s remarks reflect fears by many Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere that Sunni Muslims would come to dominate Syria should Assad be toppled, and his statements could provide a measure of support for those fighting to keep Assad in power.

‘‘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 in his office inside Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone.

‘‘Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish each other off,’’ he continued. ‘‘The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq.’’

Maliki’s comments come as his government confronts growing tensions of its own between the Shi’ite majority and an increasingly restive Sunni minority nearly a decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The war in Syria has sharp sectarian overtones, with predominantly Sunni rebels fighting a regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Rebel groups have increasingly embraced radical Islamic ideologies, and some of their greatest battlefield successes have been carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization.

Assad’s main allies are Shi’ite Iran and the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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