ANY all-out civil war in Iraq could shake the political foundations of places beyond that stricken land, sending streams of refugees across Iraqi borders, tempting neighbours to intervene and renewing the half-buried old conflict of Sunni and Shiite in the Muslim world, Middle East analysts say.
"If it's a war between Sunni and Shiite, this war might be extended from Lebanon to Afghanistan," says Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic militancy.
In a series of interviews, other regional specialists did not foresee such falling dominoes -- open war between Islam's two branches spreading elsewhere from Iraq. But they believe regional tensions have already sharpened because of the rise of Iraqi Shiites to power under the US military occupation.
This "really changes the power structure in the Middle East, not only in Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia," said long-time U.S. Mideast scholar William R. Polk, referring to two other Arab lands with fragile religious divides.
Iraq's new constitution, approved in an October 15 referendum whose results were certified last Tuesday, is largely opposed by the Sunni Muslim minority, since it could lead to a virtual breakup of the country into oil-rich Shiite and Kurdish regions in the south and north, and a resource-poor Sunni center.
A permanent government will be elected December 15, inevitably controlled by the Shiite majority. Many fear this will lead to clashes between Sunni and Shiite armed groups, transforming the Sunnis' long-running anti-U.S. insurgency into a civil war.
A key neighbour has voiced urgent concern.
"All the dynamics are pulling the country apart," Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said of Iraq. Speaking with Washington reporters on September 22, the Saudi also warned that Iraq's disintegration would "bring other countries in the region into the conflict."
Turkey and Iran top that list. The Turks might be tempted to intervene in Iraq's north to keep its autonomous Kurds from supporting Turkey's own Kurdish separatists. Shiite Iran might act -- with arms, intelligence, even "volunteers" -- to ensure victory by a friendly Iraqi Shiite leadership in any civil war, analysts say.
"The Turks would be the most worried and have the most capacity" - a strong military - "to do something about it," Polk said.
Persian Iran, sharing a long border and a history of warfare with Arab Iraq, has multiple interests in its neighbour's future, noted W. Andrew Terrill, Mideast specialist at the US Army War College.
The Iranians clearly do not want a return to a hostile Sunni-led Iraq like that of ousted President Saddam Hussein. But Terrill said Tehran also must worry about a Shiite-run government that is too reliant on Washington "that is willing to accept permanent U.S. military bases that may be used to threaten and intimidate the Iranian regime."
Two mostly Sunni neighbours, Syria and Jordan, are largely unable and unlikely to try to influence a civil war next door, analysts say. But both would bear a heavy burden if Iraqi Sunnis were driven to seek refuge across the border, fleeing Balkan-style "ethnic cleansing" -- a prospect haunting regional officials.
"What's happening in Iraq is already affecting the region. There are a half-million Iraqis in Jordan, a country of five million people," Hasan Abu Nimah, a former Jordanian U.N. ambassador, told the news agency. An even greater influx "would put a strain on services and schools and create difficulties of all kinds."
Egyptian analyst Mohamed el-Sayed Said worries about a broader struggle between Islam's two branches - the Sunnis, long dominant in the Arab world, and the schismatic, often oppressed Shiites, historically viewed as "subversives."
"Not in recent memory have we had a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites," noted Said, deputy director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "If we have one in Iraq, it would probably inflame divisions in other countries, particularly Lebanon and Saudi Arabia."
In Lebanon, analysts say, the Shiite party Hezbollah may draw on Iraq's Shiite ascendancy for political and material support in its contest for power with Lebanese Christian and Sunni factions. Said does not expect a new Lebanese civil war, but sees the "trust and amity" between Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis seriously undermined if their co-religionists fall into full-scale war in Iraq.
To Iraq's south, Saudi Arabia's relatively small, downtrodden Shiite minority is unlikely to take up arms against the Sunni fundamentalist monarchy, say Said and others.
Instead, they fear that Sunni extremists, returning home to Saudi Arabia from a losing battle in Iraq, will seek revenge through terror attacks on Saudi Shiites.
Rashwan, also of the Al-Ahram center, said similar sectarian violence could break out in Bahrain and other Gulf states with significant Shiite populations.
Militants would not need to flock to Iraq to wage their version of holy war, Rashwan said. "The Shiite-Sunni divide exists in your own country. You can create your own battlefield."