News / Middle East

Syria Spillover, al-Qaida Strain Iraq Security

Iraqi police stand guard during foot patrol at Rabia, near the main border between Iraq and Syria, March 2, 2013.
Iraqi police stand guard during foot patrol at Rabia, near the main border between Iraq and Syria, March 2, 2013.
Reuters
Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long warned that Syria's increasingly sectarian war might spill over the border and reignite his own country's combustible Shi'ite-Sunni mix.

That nightmare may have edged closer after suspected Sunni insurgents killed 48 Syrian troops on Iraqi soil on Monday.

Suicide bombers have already stepped up attacks in recent weeks to a frequency Iraq has not suffered in years.

Invigorated by the conflict in neigboring Syria, insurgents are gaining ground and recruits in Iraq's Sunni heartland, regrouping in the vast desert where the Euphrates river winds through both countries, security officials say.

"We warn all sides in Syria against moving their armed struggle onto Iraqi lands or violating the sanctity of its borders," Iraq's defense ministry said after the attack on the Syrians, which it blamed on infiltrators from Syria.  "The response will be harsh and decisive."

Syria's crisis has always been delicate for Iraq's Shi'ite leadership. Baghdad is close to Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ally, but insists it takes no sides as the conflict next door widens a regional Shi'ite-Sunni divide.

Iraq says the Syrian soldiers had fled into its territory and were being escorted back when they were ambushed. Yet their incursion will raise questions about Baghdad's neutrality.

Insurgents in Syria are predominantly Sunni and are backed by Sunni regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while Assad's minority Alawite sect springs from Shi'ite Islam.

For Maliki, a defeat for Assad threatens to put Damascus under the thumb of hardline Sunni Islamists hostile to Baghdad.

Piggybacking on Syria Conflict

Iraq's recent surge in violence is still well below the peak of sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007, when rival Sunni and Shi'ite Islamist militias ruled parts of Baghdad, tens of thousands were killed and suicide bombers struck daily.

However, insurgents in suicide vests and explosive-packed cars have struck almost twice a week since January, killing more than 230 people in Shi'ite districts and mixed areas disputed by Iraqi Arabs and ethnic Kurds.

Security officials believe insurgents are tapping into Sunni discontent in Iraq's western provinces, where for weeks thousands have protested against Maliki, accusing him of marginalising their sect since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Reviling the Shi'ite-led government it sees as oppressing Sunnis, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq group is trying to gain legitimacy by linking its struggle to the Sunni insurgency against Assad, security experts say.

Protesters in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar have raised flags of the Syrian opposition.

"We say to the Sunnis in Baghdad and elsewhere: the situation you are living today is exactly what the mujahideen warned you of years ago. You are walking in a dark tunnel," said an al-Qaida statement posted on an Islamist website.

Iraqi security officials believe Islamic State of Iraq and other Sunni Islamist insurgents have already started to make good on a vow to reclaim ground al-Qaida lost in western Iraq.

"There is something even more immediate - the opportunity to merge Syria and Iraq into a single sectarian theatre of conflict," said Ramzy Mardini, an author on Iraq's insurgents who is now at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. "Sunni extremists in Iraq see an opportunity to piggyback off the Syrian revolution."

New al-Qaida Camps

In Anbar province, which forms a third of Iraqi territory and was once almost wholly held by al-Qaida, tribal ties transcend the border. Sunni chiefs say Iraqi tribes send Syrian relatives food and supplies. Some tribal leaders say they send  arms to Free Syrian Army rebels when border controls allow.

U.S. officials say the Nusra Front, an Islamist group seen as one of the most active fighting forces in Syria, is closely linked to al-Qaida's Iraqi affiliate.

Iraqi security officials say controlling armed groups in the region has been hampered by Sunni protesters who accuse security forces of unfairly targeting them with anti-terrorism laws. To avoid possible clashes, the army has pulled back in some areas.

Maliki has warned Sunnis against allowing extremists to hijack protests and has sought to appease them by promising to modify laws and by releasing detainees. But even moderate Sunni leaders and sheikhs worry they are losing influence.

Iraqi security officials and local tribal leaders say new al-Qaida camps are emerging in the remote al-Jaziya desert and valleys along the Syrian border in Anbar, but also that small cells are returning to towns such as Falluja and Rutba.

"In the last operation, we targeted a camp and managed to kill more than 10 members and to seize stocks of explosives and weapons. What stood out was the new weapons and what seems to be continuous support," said one army intelligence officer.

One local Sunni sheikh with close contacts to insurgents said al-Qaida cells were once again using militant rhetoric to attract young men for suicide attacks to exact revenge for wronged relatives and perceived abuses against their sect.

Security officials acknowledge they lack local intelligence in places such as Anbar, where state forces are seen by many as tools of the Shi'ite-led government. They also miss U.S. air surveillance over the desert bordering Syria.

Shi'ite Militias on Board

So far Shi'ite militias have stayed mostly out of the fray.

But in Sadr City, the Baghdad bastion of Shi'ite militants who once battled U.S. troops, former fighters talk of remobilizing in case Syria's turmoil upsets Iraq's sectarian balance.

After the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, some  Iranian-backed, anti-U.S. Shi'ite militias disbanded, at least officially saying their struggle was over after nearly a decade.

With the rising influence of their political parties, there seemed little reason for the Shi'ite militants to keep fighting.

Early last year the leader of one militia, Asaib al-Haq, said it would disarm and join the political process. A rival Shi'ite group, Kataeb Hizballah, said weeks later it would not follow suit, citing Iraq's continuing instability.

The Mehdi Army of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr  mostly disbanded after its defeat by Iraqi and U.S. forces in Baghdad and southern cities in 2008.

But Syria's crisis has revived Iraqi Shi'ite militant activity. Some have crossed the border to fight alongside Assad's troops, though Shi'ite militia commanders say they have given no official sanction for volunteers to fight in Syria.

Worried about Sunni unrest in Anbar and the crisis unfolding in Syria, some ex-Mehdi Army members say they too are regrouping and recruiting as a precautionary measure.

"I will just be defending my rights," said one former senior Mehdi fighter. "We won't start this. We will just be waiting for them in case."

You May Like

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid