BAGHDAD — The Iraqi fighters in the video shoulder assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades as they walk down a highway lined with cypress trees. Grinning, some hold up cellphones and camcorders to capture the moment — the aftermath of a victorious battle to secure the Aleppo airport from Syrian rebels who had attempted to take it.
“You are the sons of Iraq and the sons of Islam!” shouts one of their commanders. The men cheer.
Weeks later in Baghdad, Abu Sajad, the nom de guerre of an Iraqi militia commander who appears in the video, proudly displayed it as proof that Iraqi Shiites are playing a critical role in supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in what has become an increasingly sectarian and regional war. It was impossible to verify the location and circumstances of the video.
Until recently, the involvement of Iraqi Shiites in Syria’s war was cloaked in secrecy here in Iraq, whose Shiite-led government has denied involvement in the conflict. But recent interviews with extremists, analysts, Arab government officials and residents of Shiite cities across Iraq reveal a trend that is growing increasingly open as Iraqi fighters come to view their participation as part of a regional struggle to defeat al-Qaida and what they say is a broad effort by the region’s dominant Sunnis to wipe out Shiites.
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At the center of the Shiite mobilization is Iran, which analysts and intelligence officials say is seeking to preserve its regional influence by funding and supplying an expanding Shiite network of armed support for the Syrian government, which is dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. In addition to combatants from Iranian security forces and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, pro-Assad proxy fighters also include Iraqis drawn largely from militant groups known to be backed by Iran.
The role of Iraqi Shiite fighters in Syria raises questions about the possible complicity of the Iraqi government, which U.S. officials have recently criticized for allowing Iran to use its airspace for flights that allegedly transport weapons, troops and supplies to the Assad government. Iraqi officials say they have agreed to U.S. requests for inspections of the Iranian overflights.
Iraqi officials have warned repeatedly that Assad’s fall would spell disaster for Iraq, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Associated Press in February that a rebel victory in Syria would revive Iraq’s sectarian war. In an interview, Sami al-Askari, a Shiite lawmaker close to Maliki, said the government “turns a blind eye” to the flow of Shiite fighters to Syria, as it does in the case of Sunnis who help Syrian rebels.
Shiite militia leaders and analysts say it is unclear how many Iraqi Shiites have gone to fight in Syria, but Abu Sajad put the number at about 200 and said the ranks were quickly growing.
He said Shiite fighters had been particularly motivated by an April statement by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who glorified the Syrian opposition in what he depicted as its fight against Assad and Iran, and by the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra’s recent pledge of fealty to al-Qaida.
“Now it has become very common for people to say, ‘I’m going to Syria to fight,’ ” Abu Sajad said.
Shiites from the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City identified some of those as members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a group responsible for most attacks against U.S. forces in the final years of the Iraq war.
Residents and journalists in Baghdad and several Shiite cities in Iraq’s south said the group is leading a shadowy effort to recruit and dispatch fighters to Syria.
Publicly, militia leaders, government officials and Shiite clerics in Baghdad and Tehran say Iraqi Shiites are going to Syria exclusively to protect the Sayeda Zeinab shrine south of Damascus, a holy site for Shiites. Massoud Jazayeri, a spokesman for Iran’s armed-forces general staff, told the Lebanese al-Manar news channel last week that “many measures have taken place” to form forces to protect Syria’s Shiite shrines.
But a growing number of media reports about bodies that have been returned to Iraq from Syria and funerals for fighters slain there indicate that Iraqi Shiites are active in battles far beyond Sayeda Zeinab district, where the level of combat is low, said Will Fulton, an Iran analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who co-authored a recent report on Iran’s strategy in Syria.
Abu Sajad and Abu Aya said there had been battles between Iraqi extremists and anti-Assad rebels across Syria, including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and the strategic Qusair region along the border with Lebanon.
Residents of southern Iraqi Shiite cities said that fighters are mobilized in meetings with Shiite political parties and militias and that they often travel via Iran.
“Every day here, there are two or three funerals for martyrs killed in Syria,” said a journalist in Najaf, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting the attention of the militias. He said about “90 percent” of the fighters had been mobilized by Asaib Ahl al-Haq and another Iranian-funded militia, Kataib Hezbollah.
Abu Sajad and Abu Aya said that in many instances, specialized paramilitary units of well-trained Iraqi Shiites and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters led offensives against rebel forces because Syrian army regiments were too afraid to lead.
The two men showed more than a dozen cellphone videos that they said Abu Sajad and his fighters shot during battles in Syria. Several other videos that purportedly show Iraqis fighting in Syria have surfaced on the Internet in the past two months.
One of Abu Sajad’s videos purports to show Iraqi fighters in green fatigues preparing for an assault on rebel forces in the Damascus suburb of Jobar.
“Look, that’s the Syrian army doing nothing because they’re scared,” Abu Sajad proclaimed.
Abu Sajad said his unit had helped deliver crushing defeats to the Syrian rebels, capture suspected spies and “liberate” Aleppo’s strategic airport from the threat of shelling.