BASRA, Iraq (AP) — The fighter’s body was collected at an Iraqi border crossing with Iran, then carried on Monday through the streets of this southern city as mourners hailed his sacrifice in protecting a revered shrine in Syria.
Diaa Mutashar al-Issawi was one of several Shiite fighters from Iraq who have trickled into Syria for months, providing a measure of support for Syrian regime forces battling mainly Sunni rebels. They are drawn by a sense of religious duty to ensure the sanctity of the revered Sayida Zeinab shrine outside the Syrian capital of Damascus as sectarian divisions harden in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war.
Al-Issawi is not the first Iraqi Shiite fighter thought to have died in Syria. But Iran’s alleged role in repatriating his body strengthens suggestions that Tehran is involved in coordinating the movement of foreign fighters to aid its embattled ally, Syria. Iran is a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, and the United States suspects Tehran is using Iraqi airspace to shuttle weapons to Syria.
Iraq remains officially neutral in the Syrian conflict, and officials had no comment on the return of al-Issawi’s body.
But the Shiite-led government in Baghdad fears Assad’s ouster would lead to the rise of a conservative Sunni government in Syria. That could fuel renewed Sunni-Shiite strife in Iraq, where sectarian violence is on the rise. Assad’s Alawite sect is a branch of Shiite Islam.
“It was a religious and ethical duty to go to Syria and defend our holy shrines,” said an Iraqi Shiite fighter from Basra who referred to himself only by the nickname Abu Zeinab, fearing reprisals. “Martyr Diaa and I fought together … to foil the Takfiris’ attacks,” he said, using the term for a radical ideology that urges Sunni Muslims to kill anyone they consider an infidel.
Journalists in the southern oil hub of Basra saw al-Issawi’s coffin — similar to the those Iran once used to repatriate the dead during the Iran-Iraq War — leaving atop a vehicle from the Iraqi side of the Shalamcha border crossing with Iran. Masked men at the scene insisted photographers not take pictures as a convoy of around 20 cars departed.
Iranian officials could not be reached for comment.
At a funeral procession later in the morning, police blocked roads as dozens of tribesmen and Shiite clerics carried the coffin through the streets.
Some in the crowd vowed to make a similar sacrifice and chanted slogans against the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army rebel group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which in the past year has become the most effective fighting force within the opposition trying to topple Assad.
Iraqi Shiites who make the journey to Syria say their aim is to defend the Zeinab shrine, which marks what is believed to be the grave of the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. A placard held aloft among the mourners called al-Issawi a “happy martyr” who died in the grounds of the holy site.
Syria has several sites revered by Shiites, and the war has sparked fears that Sunni extremists, many of whom consider such shrines heretical, could attack them. The 2006 bombing of a shrine in Iraq came close to plunging the country into civil war.
Al-Issawi was killed in a mortar attack during the past two days, according to Ali Falih Madhi, a prominent member of the Hezbollah Brigades in Basra who is widely known by his nom de guerre Abu Mujahid al-Maliki.
He said the fighter joined the group’s Lord of the Martyrs Brigades early this year and left for Syria a month ago. Al-Issawi’s body was transported from Syria via Iran before being returned to Iraq, he said.
“It is not possible to send back the bodies of the martyrs by land in eastern Syria to Iraq because the fighters of the Free Syrian Army control the area,” Madhi said.
A Hezbollah Brigades official last month confirmed that one of its fighters, Afrad Mohsen al-Hemedawi, died defending a Shiite holy shrine in Syria.
The Iraqi Hezbollah is independent of the better-known Lebanese Shiite militant group of the same name. Both receive backing from Iran.
Syrian rebels accuse the Lebanese Hezbollah of fighting alongside Assad’s troops and attacking rebels from inside Lebanese territory. Iraqi Shiites have gotten less attention so far.
It is difficult to say how many Iraqi fighters have made their way to Syria. Iraqi officials insist they are not involved and do not know how many of their citizens are fighting across the border.
“If there are Iraqi fighters in Syria, then they went on their own,” said Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister. “Our position is clear. The Iraqi government is not part of this.”
A Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly and insisted of anonymity, said there are indications of Iraqi Shiites playing a role in Syria. He said their activities are not just around Sayyida Zeinab, which he said is used as a “rallying banner” to encourage recruits.
Aram Nerguizian, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites form “an important rear guard” for Syria’s Assad as his own forces try to make advances against the rebels. “I’d be frankly surprised if you didn’t see an uptick” in the number of Iraqi fighters, he said.
Nerguizian said Iraqi Shiite fighters traveling to Syria are certainly coordinating with Iran to some extent, though it is unclear how much Tehran is calling the shots.
One area of coordination might be in providing transport, since flying Shiite fighters to Syria out of Baghdad might damage Iraq’s international standing and expose it to greater American pressure.
“If you have Iraqi Shia going by land to Iran and then on to Syria, that creates a zone of ambiguity,” Nerguizian said.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Monday, a pair of car bombs in the Baghdad suburb of Hussainya and another explosion at a restaurant in the southern neighborhood of Dora in the Iraqi capital killed at least 10 people. Also, attackers in a speeding car threw grenades at Sunni worshippers leaving al-Ihsan mosque in Baghdad’s Mansour neighborhood, killing seven and wounding 16 others. The casualties were confirmed by police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the details.
Schreck reported from Baghdad. AP writers Sinan Salaheddin and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed.
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