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Latest tensions in Middle East a worry, rare good news from Iraq

Opinion Piece

Rising tensions in the Middle East might seem half a world away but the New Zealand Government will be keeping a close watch on them as it considers the situation of troops sent to Iraq last year.

The deployment of 143 New Zealand troops in a training role started in April and is officially set down for two years, so has some time to go. But things can change quickly in the world’s most turbulent region and New Zealand has already been asked by the United States, late last year, to increase its contribution.

The latest development, rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies, comes after the Saudis executed 47 people including a leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

The Sunni-Shia antagonism goes all the way back to 632 and the death of Muhammad. Shia believe the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali should have been his successor. Extreme Sunnis do not even recognise Shia as Muslims.

The rift plays a huge part both in the rise of Isis (a product of the same fundamentalist Sunni Islam, or Wahhabism, that Saudi Arabia sponsors), efforts to remove its hold on swathes of Iraq, and the continuing bloody war in Syria. Iran and Saudi Arabia, and its co-religionists, are also fighting a proxy war in Yemen.

The deployment of the New Zealand troops, occasionally supported by the SAS, has gathered support to the point where latest polls show a majority are now in favour.

After a visit to Iraq at the end of last year John Key said his decision had been vindicated.

Labour also changed its position just before Christmas and even suggested sending the SAS in a permanent role.

The strongest dissent is from NZ First’s Ron Mark, who is against training “an army of cowards”.

The recapture of the strategic city of Ramadi by the Iraqi army goes some way to answering that criticism. The fact it was based on a change of strategy by the Iraqi army, including the use of Sunni tribal fighters and the exclusion of Shia militia fighters in an area where Sunni are in the majority, will also be encouraging to Iraq’s US-allied backers.