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

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs