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Why thousands of Iraqi fighters have poured into Syria to aid Assad

The light was low and the music loud in the “Sun of the Countryside” nightclub. Suddenly, the DJ lowered the drumbeat to a whisper as the lounge singer brought the mic close to his lips. Around him a trio of pouty women in elaborate hairdos and bright colored gowns undulated.

“Let Syria remain under Bashar Assad,” he intoned, repeating his phrase of the Syrian president like a mantra. The dancers nodded their head to the rhythm of his words. 

As civil war rages in Syria , its outcome has become of vital importance to Iraqis who see the fight there as another front in the battle they face at home. It has pushed some factions of the country’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) — paramilitary groups embroiled in their own war against Islamic State — to fly supplies and thousands of men across the border to help battle the rebels fighting Assad.

“For us, the primary battle is in Syria. If it is not dealt with, then we will pay the price here,” said Aws Khafaji, head of the Iraqi subsidiary of the Abu Fadl Abbas Brigade, a Shiite faction that emerged in Syria in 2012 and whose membership is dominated by Iraqis.  

“We already paid the price once and we lost three provinces to Islamic State,” Khafaji said, referring to the extremist group’s audacious blitz campaign in June 2014, when the jihadists crossed the Syrian border, overran wide swaths of Iraq’s northern and western provinces and announced their caliphate from the northern city of Mosul. 

The fight in Syria, however, goes beyond a pre-emptive strike on an imminent threat. It has become the main battlefield between Islam’s two major denominations, pitting the Shiite-majority militiamen of the PMUs, who fight alongside pro-Assad troops, against the Sunni-dominated insurgency. 

Groups like Abu Fadl Abbas (whose name refers to the son of Shiite Islam’s top figure, Ali bin Abi Taleb) and the League of the Righteous first appeared in Syria in 2012 defending Sayyida Zainab, an important Shiite shrine near Damascus that has been a frequent target of rebel and Islamic State attacks. 

Although they raced back to Iraq to fight Islamic State in 2014, a string of successes against the extremist groups, and a surge in recruiting ahead of Russia’s foray into the Syrian crisis last September, allowed them to redeploy in Syria in even greater numbers .

Their arrival was welcomed. Years of civil war had thinned out Damascus’ manpower, and the fresh fighters became an essential component of military operations across the country.

The militiamen, sporting their characteristic yellow and green patches, often take on the role of shock troops, ferreting out the rebels in punishing street fighting.

In Maaloula, a Christian enclave 40 miles northeast of Damascus that was retaken by the government in 2014, Abu Fadl Abbas fighters led the assault on the last rebel redoubts in the town, while army and national defense personnel watched from a nearby hill.

And in Aleppo, now the epicenter of grinding street battles between the government and the opposition, an Iraqi faction, Harakat Nujaba, announced in August that it had dispatched 2,000 fighters, boosting the force there beyond 7,000 men. The faction, supported by Assad’s top regional ally, Iran, has served for two years as a special force for Damascus, wresting control of areas and then handing them back to the Syrian army.

Their arrival in Syria, tacitly approved but not officially sanctioned by Baghdad, is part of a larger Iranian air bridge that delivers Shiites from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to reinforce Assad’s forces.

The changes, according to Ammar Saqqar, military spokesman for the U.S.-backed rebel group Fastaqim Kama Umert, are reflected on the battlefield. 

“For nearly a year, we’ve seen the fights being led mostly by Shiite groups like Hezbollah and others,” Saqqar said. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite faction, is a vital ally of the Syrian government. 

“All the dead and wounded and captured in our battle in [the southern Aleppo neighborhood of] Sheikh Said, all of them are Iraqi fighters.”

The Nujaba have deployed in Aleppo because it is “a city as strategic to the battle against extremism as Mosul,” and not because of religious beliefs, said its spokesman Hisham Moussawi. His group, he insisted, was fighting “to remove the specter of terrorism from Christian and Shiite cities, because we care only about humanity.”

“We believe the enemy is one and the project is one. It’s a natural extension of the battle in Iraq, Yemen and Libya,” he said, accusing the rebels of being the ideological brethren of Islamic State’s extremists.

“Whoever cuts the head off someone and who desecrates churches, shrines, mosques… who destroys factories, they claim to be moderate,” he said. He referred to incidents where opposition fighters, including groups deemed mainstream rebels, were accused of engaging in beheadings and destruction of religious structures . 

“What is this moderate opposition that accepts American planes to hit Syria?”

Khafaji of Abu Fadl Abbas echoed that view, adding that there had been discussions from the PMU leadership to deploy in Syria once the battle for Mosul had finished. 

“After Fallujah… there was an internal decision that after Mosul we must protect our western borders with Syria and participate in an agreement with the Syrian government to fight there,” he said.

PMU spokesman Ahmad Assadi, however, said such a decision would have to come from Baghdad.

“If the battle against Daesh in Iraq has ended, and the Iraqi government decides to chase the terrorist groups to Syria to guarantee they do not threaten the borders again, then we will be ready,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

But in Syria, the rebels see the Iraqi factions as little more than sectarian mercenaries.

Earlier this month Fastaqim rebels posted images and videos depicting their interrogation of a Nujaba militiaman. 

“This land is forbidden to you. This is the land of Omar and Abu Bakr,” said one rebel fighter, invoking the names of revered Sunni figures, as the militiaman broke down in tears and insisted he was a Sunni.

“Why did you do this to us?” he said to the camera, after being told to give a message to his commanders. 

The fate of those captured had not been determined, Abu Yusef said, but he did not expect the Iraqi government to protest their capture and ask for their return.

“These fighters are invaders, and we are defending our land. They certainly did not come here for tourism.”

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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