why iraq’s shiites are taking jihad to syria and supporting al-assad

NIQASH meets the young Iraqis about to go and fight for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and asks them why. Many say there’s an Iranian connection. But if so, then why aren’t Iraqi authorities, both religious and political, doing anything about it?
Careful not to give away his real destination to his family, a young Iraqi man, Abbas Ismail, was packing his bags and preparing to travel. The Basra 20-something had told his parents that he was going to Iran for “religious tourism”. He didn’t want to worry them and he was also told to tell them this by those who had persuaded him to go to Syria to fight. But he didn’t know if he would be coming back alive.
The four friends he was travelling with into Syria had all been told to say the same thing to their families. Before he left, Ismail told NIQASH: “I guess our families will know soon enough that we went to Syria. Either our corpses will be returned to them or the war there will end”.
The young man was willing to give details about how he had been recruited and trained. But first, he said, NIQASH would have to change his name. “More than half of all Shiites have this name so nobody will know,” he said laughing.
He had just spent two weeks in Iran learning to fight. “I learned street fighting and how to use different weapons, things I never knew before,” Ismail said. “We will not allow the Salafists to rise to power in Syria,” he explained. “We will fight together to prevent the fall of the al-Assad regime so that Sunni [Muslim] militants do not get the chance to tarnish the tomb of Sayyida Zainab.”
The Sayyida Zainab mosque is located in Damascus and is considered a very important centre of Shiite Muslim religious study and pilgrimage.
Habib al-Waeli, who recently returned from Syria after 14 months there, takes up the story. Iraqis that go to Syria often want to join a brigade named Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas, also known as the al-Abbas brigade, he says. It’s made up of Shiite Muslims from Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
As British newspaper, the Guardian recently reported: “Interviews with serving and former members of Abu Fadl al-Abbas suggest that upwards of 10,000 volunteers – all of them Shia Muslims, and many from outside Syria – have joined their ranks in the past year alone. The group’s raison d’etre is to be custodian of Shia holy sites, especially Sayyida Zainab, a golden-domed Damascus landmark, but its role has taken it to most corners of Syria’s war. It is now a direct battlefield rival, both in numbers and power, for Jabhat al-Nusra, the [Sunni Muslim] jihadist group that takes a prominent role among opposition fighting groups.”
“The al-Abbas brigade is stationed at the shrine of Sayyida Zainab in the centre of Damascus and the Hezbollah commands this brigade,” al-Waeli confirms. “Sometimes we were ordered to fight further away from the shrine, on the outskirts of Damascus against the al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army. Most Iraqis in Syria are not killed near the shrine, they’re killed in other places,” he explains.
But now al-Waeli says he’s not going back to Syria any time soon. “The Sayyida Zainab shrine is safe,” he tells NIQASH. “It isn’t in any danger. If there was danger though, I would go again and risk my life – without hesitation.”
Many on the Syrian opposition say that the al-Assad regime has cunningly used the Sayyida Zainab shrine as a way of getting Shiite Muslims to come and fight for their cause.
Al-Waeli then talks about the Damascus he saw when he visited as a tourist four years ago. The comparison seems to make him sad. “It‘s a city of ghosts today,” he says. “I toured the streets, carrying my gun and started to remember the old days when I used to hang around in the Jaramana area, where there were a lot of Iraqis living.”
Al-Waeli says he and the other fighters would stay in fortified barracks and try to avoid the shelling. “A lot of us were killed by missiles,” he notes.
There are no accurate statistics as to how many Iraqis have died in Syria or how many are still there fighting. But judging by the number of funerals and mourners in Iraq for those killed, numbers must be fairly high.
Such ceremonies are usually attended by high ranking Shiite Muslim clerics and the leaders of Shiite Muslim militias. Fiery speeches are made during the ceremonies, during which other young Iraqis are incited to go to Syria to fight. Banners that are carried by mourners may express their condolences but will also often say something along the lines of: “this man died in defence of the holy Shiite shrines in Syria”.
In neighbourhoods in Baghdad like Sadr city where there’s a heavy Shiite Muslim population, one sees plenty of placards featuring pictures of those who died in Syria. The same kinds of pictures are often found in Shiite-Muslim dominated provinces like Basra and Maysan.
NIQASH was able to meet the father of Ammar, a young Iraqi man killed in Syria in April 2013. As he gazes at his son’s widow and his grandson, he says he is proud of his child because he died for a cause – protecting something he considers sacred and holy. But then Ammar’s father falters and starts to cry. “My son and other young men didn’t go to Syria to fight for Bashar al-Assad,” he insists. “They went there to defend holy Shiite shrines.”
There is certainly secrecy surrounding the recruitment of Iraqis to fight in Syria. One former leader of a Shiite Muslim militia in Najaf that was connected with the Mahdi Army, an informal but very powerful militia, linked to the Sadrist political movement, agreed to speak to NIQASH as long as he was able to do so anonymously.
“The Shiite fighters are being recruited and sent to Syria by a Shiite militia that is more loyal to clerics in Iran than it is to Iraqi clerics,” he said. “Most prominent among these are the Hezbollah Brigades and the League of Righteous, which split from the Mahdi Army.”
The Hezbollah Brigades are associated with the Hezbollah party in Lebanon, a Shiite Muslim organisation that openly supports the al-Assad regime, which funds it. The League of Righteous are a Shiite Muslim militia that split from the Mahdi army several years ago reputed to have strong links to Iran.
And, he noted, “ the Iraqi government doesn’t interfere in this process or in the travel of Iraqi fighters into Syria. The militias do all that themselves while the Iraqi government turns a blind eye to it all. The government certainly hasn’t tried any tough measures to stop this process.”
The former Mahdi army leader, who has since changed professions, also says that another persuasive factor is money. “Fighters are paid up to US$600 a month – that’s a pretty good incentive to young, poor and unemployed Shiites.”
There are also secret religious edicts, or fatwas, being talked about, around Shiite provinces in southern Iraq, he says. “They call for a jihad to protect the shrines,” he explains.
Apparently the demolition of a holy Shiite Muslim shrine dedicated to one of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions, Hujr bin Uday al-Kindi, in mid-May near Damascus, was the spark that pushed hundreds of Shiite Muslim fighters to head to Syria.
“Still,” he adds, “there are many young Shiite men who just want to go and fight in Syria. And they’re followers of all sorts of different Iraqi religious authorities. Those authorities take a lot of different positions on religious and political topics. But all of them say they won’t stop anyone from going to fight in Syria. On the other hand, they don’t publicly declare their support for those who do, either.”
On the contrary Iranian religious authorities in Qom, that country’s holy centre of Shiite Muslim study and practice, have issued a fatwa that actually urges Shiite Muslims to go and fight in Syria. Qom’s opposite number in Iraq, in Najaf, an equally powerful Shiite Muslim religious authority, have not done this. While the different schools of religious thought in Najaf have a history of conflict with Qom and generally take an oppositional stance toward the Iranians, they haven’t issued a fatwa forbidding anybody to go and fight either. It seems they are staying neutral.
In Basra, “the militias put out a call for volunteers and they open their offices to them,” says Abdul Rida, a senior Shiite cleric in the southern Iraqi city. “Anyone who volunteers is paid a salary. The volunteers are first sent to Iran for two or more weeks to get training. Then they come back to Iraq and they have passports issued to them. After that they go to fight in Syria. Sometimes they’re also trained in Damascus,” he says.
However, Rida says, militias in southern Iraq actually stopped accepting volunteers recently. “Because the holy shrine of Sayyida Zainab is safe at the moment,” he explains. “The regular Syrian army was able to push their opposition away from the outskirts of Damascus. Only the Hezbollah Brigades are still accepting volunteers,” he added.
Local political analyst Abdul Majid Yassin, thinks there’s more to it than that though. “I believe the real reason is the recent regional and international criticism of Iraq due to the participation of Iraqi citizens in Syria – and because Iraq appears to have taken the Syrian regime’s side.”
It was only relatively recently that the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, admitted that there were Iraqis fighting in Syria in Stockholm during a June 28 press conference. He admitted that he didn’t know how many although he thought it would be in hundreds rather than in thousands.
Then this week Zebari told the BBC’s Hardtalk show that the Iraqi government was neutral and that it didn’t support the idea of Iraqis fighting in Syria. “We are for a political solution, we are for respect for the will of the Syrian people,” Zebari said.
Most of the political parties that are not dominated by Shiite Muslim MPs have openly agreed that having Iraqis fighting in Syria is not in the nation’s interest because it puts the country in the middle of a regional sectarian conflict. The Iraqi government is currently led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads a coalition of mostly Shiite Muslim parties.
“It is not in the interests of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, its Sunni Muslims or its Kurds to send fighters into Syria,” opposition MP, Mathhar al-Janabi, a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence and a Sunni Muslim, told NIQASH. “We will pay the price for this sooner or later.”
“The government’s position – which is seen as supporting Bashar al-Assad by some – and the Iraqis fighting on his side – have made us a party to this truly frightening regional sectarian conflict,” warns independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman. “I’m mostly worried about the future,” Othman told NIQASH. “If the al-Assad regime is toppled then the Syrian people will say that we, the Iraqis supported the dictator – and we did that against the will of the Syrian people.”

About chainsoff.

Intelligence Media Service, Monitors and Analyzes Extremists’ activities, including and not limited to: The Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish Terrorism, Syrian Politics, Jabhet Al-Nusra, Hezbollah, Cyber Crime, and Taliban activities in Syria. Well known for her deep knowledge on Terrorism. Open Source Exploitation expert in the discovery, collection, and assessment of foreign-based publicly available information, also known as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), HIMNT
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