Syria turmoil stirs Iraqi tribal sympathies, hopes

RAMADI, Iraq Wed Oct 31, 2012 10:26am EDT

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad cross a road in the Suliman al-Halbi area in Aleppo October 30, 2012. REUTERS/George Ourfalian

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad cross a road in the Suliman al-Halbi area in Aleppo October 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/George Ourfalian

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RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - In guesthouses and mosques across Iraq's Anbar province, the talk at Sunni tribal gatherings has turned from the usual debate over local politics to a matter even more pressing - the war next door.

Many people in Iraq's Sunni heartland, once al Qaeda's stronghold in the country, are most concerned with helping their kin. Tribal ties span the border, and Sunni chieftains and community leaders say Iraqi tribes regularly send Syrian relatives food and supplies.

Some openly support Free Syrian Army rebels with arms when border controls allowed.

But many also are anticipating the day when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is overthrown and replaced by a Sunni regime that will give them a counterweight to Shi'ite power that has grown steadily in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"Baghdad is helping Assad for sectarian reasons," Sheikh Abdul Rahman Ali, chief of the tribal council in Falluja. "But when Assad goes, we will have a brother regime at our back."

For Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Shi'ite leaders, the prospect of a possibly radical Sunni leader next door is a nightmare scenario. They fear it will embolden the country's own Sunni leaders and could tempt insurgents in Syria to turn their sights on Iraq.

Maliki has tried to walk a delicate line on Syria. He must avoid alienating both his non-Arab ally Shi'ite Iran, who supports Assad, long Tehran's closest supporter in the region, and the United States, as well as Iraq's Sunni Gulf Arab neighbors and Turkey, who support the mostly Sunni rebels.

With Anbar province awash in weapons and the fighting close across a porous border, security concerns are building.

Iraq says Sunni Islamists are crossing into Syria and security experts believe al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq has been reinvigorated by money and arms from Syria's turmoil.

In a sign Syria's crisis is dragging its neighbors into a proxy war, Iraqi Shi'ite militants are also fighting there, often alongside Assad's troops, claiming fidelity to Iran's supreme religious leader. Iraqi officials and arms dealers acknowledge the intensifying conflict has already spurred demand in weapons markets in Iraq.

Fearing insurgents slipping back across the border, Maliki earlier this year ordered the al Qaim border crossing in Anbar closed, only recently allowing women and children refugees to cross. Army divisions from outside Anbar have reinforced the frontier, where troops occasionally exchange fire with Syrian rebels and smugglers.

His actions have served to stir up resentments in the vast, sparsely populated desert province that makes up a large portion of the 600-km (375-mile) Syrian-Iraqi frontier.

Since the 2003 invasion and rise of the Shi'ite majority through the ballot box, many minority Iraqi Sunnis say they feel sidelined in a power-sharing agreement among the Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurds blocks. They believe Maliki is consolidating his own authority at their expense.

Syria's crisis is worsening those political tensions. At one meeting this month in a Ramadi tribal guesthouse, leaders sat among its red-marble pillars organizing committees to collect money, food and supplies to help Syrian refugees. Tribal meetings now regularly turn to talk about Syria.

"We have asked our tribal sons to support the Syrian people ... they choose the way they find suitable," Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman, the head of the powerful Dulaimi tribe, told Reuters in his Baghdad home.

"Why can Iran and Maliki support a criminal regime, while it is taboo for us to support the Syrian people?"

SOME CAUTION TOO

Anbar's relationship with Baghdad is complex. After initially joining the insurgency against U.S. forces, Sunni tribal leaders turned against al Qaeda and helped form the "Awakening" movement, a loose coalition of fighters who helped turn the tide of the war in 2007.

Tribal leaders say Maliki has failed to keep a promise to incorporate Awakening fighters into the national security forces.

Still, some Anbar leaders believe they must work with Maliki's government or risk losing political influence, and are more cautious about how much to help the Syrian rebels.

"Historically no one has been able to control our borders with Syria," said Anbar governor Qassim Mohammed, who says his frequent disagreements with Maliki over development projects for the province do not stop him working with Baghdad.

"But on the ground, there is no serious military aid going to Syria, there is some humanitarian aid, like medicine and food."

Other tribal leaders reject calls for the province to send arms to their Syrian brethren, remembering the darker days of Iraq's conflict when insurgents used Syria as a base to send suicide bombers into Iraq.

"We just have to watch out for the what kind of evil comes back across," said Sheikh Hameed Turki al-Shook, who heads a tribal council in the provincial capital Ramadi.

POROUS BORDER, GUN SMUGGLING

Arms dealers and Iraqi security officials say prices for Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles and pistols in Iraq have multiplied as much as four times with the growing demand from Syria.

Anbar borders not only Syria but also Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and its remote hillsides, hidden caves and tracks have made the province a haven for smugglers for generations. Contraband even makes its way on barges along the Euphrates river flowing between Iraq and Syria.

"It is not a secret. Demand for weapons started since the Syrian uprising began, and weapons were sent to Anbar and Mosul on their way to Syria," said Qassim, an arms dealer, told Reuters in Baghdad, puffing on a cigarette.

"We know it is going to Syria, we were trying to help them. Our theory is, we should support our Muslim brothers with money and weapons."

National police intelligence reports that indicate Sunni provinces in Iraq are stockpiling weapons for a flare-up in sectarian violence recently prompted four leading Shi'ite religious leaders to issue an edict forbidding arms shipments out of Shi'ite areas.

One senior Iraqi police official said authorities believe young Syrians who took refuge with relatives in Iraq at the beginning of the uprising are being organized and trained inside Iraq to prepare them for the post-Assad era.

That is a change that cannot come soon enough for many in Anbar.

"We will be stronger. Stronger to face to the east, to face the government in Baghdad," said Sheikh Adnan Khames, a Sunni chieftain in Ramadi. "For years they have given us little of what we are entitled to."

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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