Iraqi Shi’ite fighters flock to Assad’s side as Syria’s sectarian split widens
Among the Iranian pilgrims, foreign executives and tourists in the departure lounge at Baghdad airport, a group of young Iraqis prepare to wage religious war in Syria – not for the rebels trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad but against them.
Dressed in jeans, their hair cropped short, the 12 men awaiting their flight are Iraqi Shi’ites, among hundreds heading for what they see as a struggle to defend fellow Syrian Shi’ites and their holy sites from the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.
Syria is splintering the Middle East along a divide between the two main denominations of Islam, becoming a battlefield in a proxy war between Assad’s main regional ally, Shi’ite Iran, and his Sunni enemies in Turkey and the Gulf Arab states.
The conflict has already drawn in streams of Sunni Islamist fighters on the rebel side, while Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah is openly fighting for Assad.
Now the flow of Iraqi militiamen across the border is also casting doubt on the Shi’ite-led Baghdad government’s official position of neutrality in the Syrian civil war that has killed 90,000 people in more than two years.
For Ali, 20, fighting for the Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas militia brigade meant joining his father in Syria to protect a Shi’ite shrine near Damascus from the Sunni rebels.
“It is my legitimate duty to go there and fight to defend Sayyida Zeinab Shrine,” Ali told Reuters just before he left Baghdad last week. “Should we accept seeing Zeinab, the grand daughter of Prophet Mohammad, being captured again?”