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

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa More

Multimedia Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

Refugees receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed More

India’s Ruling Nationalist Party Makes Gains in Regional Elections

Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge margin over its rivals puts it on course to form governments in the northern Haryana and western Maharashtra states More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid