"The targeting of these shrines will lead to the eruption of a sectarian volcano in the region. This will set off a sectarian fire that nobody will be able to put out. Certainly, we have great fears about this," he said.
Iraqi officials acknowledge that well-armed Shiite militiamen remain in Iraq, despite efforts to disarm them or integrate them into state security forces.
A senior Iraqi security official estimated there are 2,000 to 3,000 well-trained militiamen in Iraq, and said they have access to hidden caches of heavy weapons. The official, who refused to allow his name to be used because he is not authorized to release the information, said the potential targeting of Shiite shrines in Syria risks provoking not just militias, but "the whole Shiite community."
Even as concerns grow that Iraqi Shiites could be drawn into Syria's civil war, Sunni fighters aligned with al-Qaida's Iraq franchise are believed to be moving back and forth across the Syrian border to help Sunni rebels overthrow Assad, according to senior Iraqi security officials. The group is also setting up training camps for insurgents in Iraq's western deserts, officials say.
"It is very difficult to imagine a scenario could emerge in the long term where you have this continued stalemate (in Syria) and the various factions in Iraq don't get involved," said Aram Nerguizian, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Most observers, myself included, are still trying to map out who the players are."
Fear for the fate of Syrian Shiites and the Zainab shrine in particular are palpable among Iraq's Shiite faithful.
Believers point worryingly to statements made in Internet postings and on ultraconservative Sunni satellite channels from the Gulf calling for Zainab's destruction.
While the threats represent a minority, extremist point of view, they are being taken seriously on the streets of Iraq.
Tears welled up in Rasheed al-Sheikh's eyes when he was asked about the Syrian shrine earlier this week. The 75-year-old moneychanger, who does business in Baghdad's Shiite Kazimiyah neighborhood, heard of threats to the shrine from other merchants. He said he fully supported sending fighters to Syria.
"Of course this is a good thing. We all love the shrines," he said, growing emotional at the thought that the holy sites could be harmed. "They (Sunni extremists) are serious about these threats. They've done it many times before."
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.
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