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Middle East in 2012? Egypt and Iran and Syria and... oh, my.

Last year was momentous, but the region may just be getting warmed up.

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5. Iraq. Many Americans are already putting the war, and the country itself, in the rear view mirror. But 2012 will be crucial for understanding the Iraq that's emerged as a consequence of the 2003 invasion. With the American combat role conclusively over, the country's Sunni and Shiite Arabs and its ethnic Kurds are going to vie for power and influence without the overshadowing presence of Uncle Sam. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wasted little time after US troops left in December before he targeted one of the country's most important Sunni politicians, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, for arrest on charges of running a death squad, an allegation that Mr. Hashemi dismissed as politically motivated after fleeing to the relative safety of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Many Iraq watchers closed out the year deeply worried that a return to sectarian war is possible -- though there are also powerful disincentives against that, not least the over 100,000 people that have died already in Iraq's war. Even if open warfare is avoided, the risks of a new autocracy solidifying -- this time a  Shiite Islamist one, rather than the secular Sunni-led Baathists of Saddam Hussein's era -- are real.

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6. Syria. The country's war over the regime of Bashar al-Assad grew ever bloodier as 2011 went on, with at least 6,000 dead in political violence over the course of the year. A small group of monitors sent to Syria in December by the Arab League to verify an end to bloodshed appeared to have little effect, with Syrian human rights groups claiming over 200 fresh killings after they had arrived in the country. For the short term, the outlook is grim. Mr. Assad has given no indication of being willing to step down, and there have been worrying reports of sectarian killings carried out by some of his opponents. His regime draws on the minority Alawite sect Assad belongs to for support, and both Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad have targeted Sunni Islamists with ferocity over the decades. There is a lot of dry sectarian tinder on the ground there. While many are loathe to say Syria is in a civil war, it already has thousands of violent deaths in the uprising and a group calling itself the Free Syrian Army, composed of army defectors, targeting the regime. If 2012 continues the trajectory of 2011, civil war looks very likely -- which could effect the stability of neighbors.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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