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

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid