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Extremist groups in Iraq threaten regional war, UN panel warns

GENEVA — The onslaught of extremist Sunni militants in Iraq will have violent repercussions in Syria and could bring wider war in the Middle East, a UN panel warned Tuesday.

The conflict in Syria “has reached a tipping point threatening the entire region,” the panel, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Attacks in northern Iraq by forces affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militant group leading the offensive, have brought “unimaginable suffering” to civilians and are likely to cause greater regional involvement in the Syrian conflict, including an influx of more foreign fighters, the panel said.

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“ISIS has shown itself willing to fan the flames of sectarianism both in Iraq and Syria,” the four-member panel warned. “Any strengthening of their position gives rise to great concern.”

Vitit Muntarbhorn, a member of the panel, told reporters: “We are possibly on the cusp of a regional war. That is something we are very worried about.”

In Syria, after more than three years of a conflict that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and driven millions from their homes, the relentless pursuit of military victory has escalated violence to an unprecedented level, the panel said. “For perpetrators of crimes, there is no fear or thought of consequence,” it said.

Extremist opposition groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Nusra Front have diverted resources from fighting the Syrian government and are locked in open war with other opposition forces and tribal groups for control of resources in the oil- and gas-rich eastern and northeastern regions of Syria, the panel reported.

Most civilians continue to be killed by Syrian government bombardments, particularly barrel bombs, which often target areas populated by civilians in what the panel described as a “strategy of terrorizing civilians by making opposition-controlled areas unlivable.”

“The most dangerous places in Syria for civilians are the markets, hospitals, and schools that continue to operate in desperate conditions and amid constant threat of attack,” the report said.

But armed opposition groups have also increased attacks lethal to civilians, including multiple attacks on schools, and have increasingly tortured and mistreated civilians in areas under their control, the report said.

Against that background, the panel delivered blunt criticism of the weak response from the world powers on the UN Security Council. “Through their inaction, a space has been created for the worst of humanity to express itself,” it said.

“The international community has stumbled and fallen in seeking justice for the Syrian people,” the panel’s chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, told reporters in Geneva, pointing to a Security Council resolution referring Syria to the International Criminal Court for prosecution of war crimes, a measure that was blocked by Russia and China.

“We archive our evidence and nothing happened,” said another panel member, Carla Del Ponte. “That for me is a tragedy for international justice.”

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