IRAQI Shiite militants, loyal to Iran’s religious leader, are fighting in Syria, alongside president Bashar al-Assad’s troops, according to sources in Iraq.
Iraqi Shiite militia involvement in Syria’s conflict exposes how rapidly the crisis has spiralled into a proxy war between Mr Assad’s main ally, Shiite Iran, and the Sunni Arab Gulf states supporting mostly Sunni rebels fighting the president.
The conflict has already drawn in Sunni Islamist fighters from across the region attracted to the rebel cause, while on the other side Syrian rebels accuse Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah of supporting Mr Assad’s troops.
For Iraqi Shiites who follow Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the uprising in Syria threatens Shiite influence and Iraqis fighting there say they see a duty to help Mr Assad because of their loyalty to Mr Khamenei. Among them are defectors and former fighters from anti-US Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army, the Iran-backed Badr group and Asaib al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, militias who once waged a bloody war on US troops.
Shiite politicians say militants fighting in Syria have no official sanction from their militia leadership or from Iraq’s Shia-led government which is caught between its ally, Tehran, and western and Arab powers calling for Mr Assad’s removal.
Some of the Iraqi militants are former Mehdi Army fighters who took refugee in Syria after 2007 when their group was crushed by Iraqi forces. Others crossed over recently, fighters and Iraqi politicians say.
“We formed the Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas brigade which includes 500 Iraqi, Syrian and some other nationalities,” an Iraqi defector from the Mehdi Army styled Abu Hajar said by satellite phone from Syria. “When the fighting erupted in our areas, we carried out some joint military operations side by side with the Syrian army to clean up areas seized by rebels,” said Abu Hajar, who like others was a refugee in Syria before the conflict.
The brigade is named after Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas, a brother of Imam Hussain Bin Ali, a martyred grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who is a symbol of sacrifice for Shiite Islam.
Another Mehdi Army defector, Abu Mujahid, who recently returned from Syria to visit his family in the Iraqi city of Najaf, said his group’s mission in Syria was restricted to securing the Sayyida Zeinab Shiite shrine and its Shiite districts.
But sometimes, he said, they carry out pre-emptive raids on Free Syrian Army rebel fighters, whenever they get information rebels will attack the shrine, offices of Shiite religious leaders, known as Marjaiya, and Shiite neighbourhoods.
“Our mission is securing the shrine, Shiite areas and the Marjaiya offices,” Abu Mujahid said. “We have no clear battlefield, but, from time to time, we carry out raids with the army on the sites of the Free Syrian Army.”
In Baghdad’s Ameen Shiite neighbourhood, a recently erected hoarding shows a bearded Mehdi militant “matyred” in February. Local families say he was killed fighting in Syria.
A YouTube video last month posted by Syrian rebels showed a young man named as Ahmed al-Maksosi whose face appeared to be swollen with signs of beating and torture as he confessed that he was a Mehdi fighter.
Syria’s upheaval is a nightmare for Iraq’s Shiite led government which believes a messy fall of Mr Assad would fracture Syria along sectarian lines and yield a hostile, hardline Sunni Muslim regime that could stir up Iraq’s own Sunni-Shi’ite tensions.
Iraq says it has a policy of non-interference in Syria – but like Tehran refuses to endorse western and Arab League calls for the removal of Mr Assad, whose Alawite minority faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Iraqi militants and politicians say there may be no Iranian fighters in Syria, but there are Lebanese Hezbollah advisers.
“Iran is working there by using Hezbollah, there are officers and militants from Hezbollah-Lebanon training the citizens and developing their fighting skills and abilities,” Iraqi militant Abu Mujahid said.
Source: Scots Man