BAGHDAD — Iraqi Shiites increasingly fear the Muslim sect and its holy sites could be targeted in neighboring Syria as the civil war there takes on increasingly sectarian overtones, and Iranian-backed militants are girding for violence in both countries, according to Shiite leaders and government officials.
The Iraqi concerns center on the role ultraconservative Sunnis might play in Syria should President Bashar Assad be forced from power, and on what they see as growing threats to the revered Sayyida Zainab mosque complex outside Damascus.
The golden-domed shrine is believed to house the grave of the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter and is one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. It was damaged in June when a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed van nearby, and Sunni hard-liners have threatened to destroy it since.
Many Iraqi Shiites are haunted by memories of the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra. That attack was blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq and set off years of retaliatory bloodshed between Sunni and Shiite extremists that left thousands of Iraqis dead and pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
"We have real concerns that the Samarra attacks will be repeated" at the Zainab shrine, said Saleh al-Haidari, the head of Iraq's Shiite endowment. "The retaliation could be huge and very violent."
Violence in Iraq, where the Shiite majority rose to power following the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, has fallen sharply in recent years. There have been several major attacks on Shiite targets blamed on Sunni insurgents, but so far Shiite militants have not responded in force.
Iraqi officials fear the shift in Syria's power balance could change that.
An official in the Badr organization, a conservative Shiite bloc that is part of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling coalition, said Shiite militant groups have acquired new advanced and heavy weapons and were gearing up for a fierce reaction if the Zainab shrine were hit. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
A Shiite militant who described himself as a member of the anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia said about 200 Iraqi fighters drawn from the ranks of various Shiite militias, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Hezbollah Brigades, have made their way to Syria in order to protect shrines there.
Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah militia is also believed to be sending fighters to help the Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The 42 year old militant, who agreed to be identified only by the nickname of Abu Zainab because the Mahdi Army is officially no longer supposed to be engaged in military activities, said the fighters are being supported by Iran and consider the defense of the holy sites to be a religious duty. "They are happy to do this," he said.
Iran has been providing logistical support and small arms to volunteer fighters guarding the shrine, the militant said.
Tehran has long denied supporting violence in Iraq, although it has seen its influence rise since American troops withdrew in December.
It is extremely difficult to independently verify the Iraqis' claims. Some officials downplayed the suggestion that Iraqi militia members had been formally sent to take up arms in Syria in recent months, though they suggested that Iraqi Shiite militants who had settled near the Zainab shrine prior to the Syrian uprising have stayed to defend the site.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government is concerned that Shiite holy sites in Syria could be targeted.
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