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U.N. warns of increasing militant links between Iraq, Syria

By Mirjam Donath

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations on Thursday warned about Islamist militant networks increasingly forging links across the border of Syria and Iraq, which is fueling sectarian tensions in a region that has suffered from years of bloodshed.

Violence in Iraq reached new highs in 2013, when nearly 8,000 civilians were killed. Its political elite remains deeply divided along sectarian lines, as it has been since after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 11 years ago this month.

"The ongoing conflict in Syria has added a regional dimension to sectarian tensions and is affording terrorist networks the occasion to forge links across the border and expand their support base," U.N. special envoy to Iraq Nickolay Mladenov told the 15-nation Security Council.

He said that the combination of a divided leadership in Iraq, unresolved constitutional issues between communities and the growing militant threat coming from Syria have created a situation that is "fragile and explosive."

Since the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq last year hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in attacks, mostly in suicide bombings that are believed to be orchestrated by Islamist groups. Such bombings occur virtually every day.

In neighboring Syria over 140,000 people have died in a three-year-old civil war, while 2.5 million have fled the fighting, many of them to other countries. The United Nations says Islamist militant groups in Syria linked to al Qaeda are killing civilians and preventing aid delivery.

Mladenov said the only way Iraqis can stop the violence is through a political process that will bridge differences, increase development and make the government more inclusive.

"You cannot resolve the problem of violence of terrorism simply by security measures," he said. "You need to look at the inclusion of communities and decision making. You need to look at the economic development and the protection of human rights, the rule of law."

But Mladenov was not optimistic.

"The signs are not promising for an early resolution of the crisis," he added.

(Reporting By Mirjam Donath; editing by Louis Charbonneau and Cynthia Osterman)

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