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Iraqi federal policemen watch as Shiite tribal fighters deploy with their weapons in the northwest Baghdad's Shula neighborhood, Iraq, Monday, June 16, 2014. Sunni militants captured a key northern Iraqi town along the highway to Syria early on Monday, compounding the woes of Iraq's Shiite-led government a week after it lost a vast swath of territory to the insurgents in the country's north. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
UN panel: Syria, Iraq edging into regional war
First Published Jun 17 2014 08:55 am • Last Updated Jun 17 2014 08:55 am

Geneva • A U.N. commission on Syrian war crimes is sounding the alarm that the entire region is on the brink of war.

In its latest report Tuesday to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the commission said "a regional war in the Middle East draws ever closer" as Sunni insurgents advance across Iraq to control areas bridging the Iraq-Syria frontier — drawing in Washington and Tehran.

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That, along with a fourth year of civil war in Syria and the paralysis of "inaction" on the U.N. Security Council, threatens to topple the region, according to the four-member commission. The panel is investigating war crimes and other abuses in Syria, where President Bashar Assad was re-elected to another seven-year term in a highly contentious vote held amid fighting that has killed more than 160,000 people.

"The conflict in Syria has reached a tipping point, threatening the entire region," said the head of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Brazilian diplomat and scholar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, in a speech to the 47-nation rights council in Geneva.

The atrocities and terrorist attacks in northern Iraq by forces affiliated with the al-Qaida-inspired militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, will likely draw in more foreign fighters and other outside involvement, the commission said. It said the Sunni Muslim militant group has shown itself "willing to fan the flames of sectarianism both in Iraq and Syria."

Syrian opposition groups and extremists like ISIL and Al Nusra Front are fighting each other for control of the region while also battling the Syrian government, which benefits Assad, according to the commission.

"We are possibly on the cusp of a regional war," commission member Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai professor who has investigated human rights in North Korea, told reporters. "That is something we are very worried about."

Violence has reached unprecedented levels, people commit crimes with no fear of being punished and "impunity has made its home" in the warring country where most civilians are killed by government attacks aimed at terrorizing the population, according to the commission.

"Syrians live in a world where decisions about where to go to the mosque for prayers, to the market for food and to send their children to school have become decisions about life and death," Pinheiro said.

In its report, the commission said Iraq’s turmoil also will have "violent repercussions" in Syria, most dangerously the rise of sectarian violence as "a direct consequence of the dominance of extremist groups."

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Noting that children are constantly in harm’s way, the commission found "a marked increase in the number of attacks on functioning schools resulting in the killing and maiming of children." Pinheiro said that trend could be linked to attempts to control families and fighters on one side or another of the conflict.

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