(Shi'ite Muslims attend a religious ritual at the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad, January 8, 2011S/Mohammed Ameen)

Iraqi Shi’ites, like their allies in Iran, fret that unrest in Syria could oust President Bashar al-Assad and bring to power hardline Sunnis eager to put their weight behind fellow-Sunnis in Iraq who have lost out since Saddam Hussein’s fall. They fear the turmoil next door could spill into Iraq, reignite sectarian violence and intensify a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam and has never come to terms with Shi’ite rule in Baghdad.

“If Syria falls, Iraq will work with Iran to influence events in Syria,” said a senior Iraqi Shi’ite politician, who asked not to be named. “Change in Syria will cause major problems for Iraq. They (Sunnis) will incite the western (Sunni) part of Iraq.”

Iraqi Shi’ite militias are unlikely to fight for Assad’s survival, but might respond if Sunnis in Iraq’s western Anbar province were emboldened by the rise of Sunni power in Syria. Syria was the only Arab nation to side with Iran in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Assad’s minority Alawite sect is a distant offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Syria links Iran logistically with its Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrilla proteges.

Despite violent repression that, by a U.N. count, has killed 2,700 people, Assad has failed to quell six months of protests mostly involving majority Sunnis. The anti-Assad movement has sought to shun any sectarian agenda, but Sunni Islamists may emerge as a significant force if the president is deposed.