| RAMADI, Iraq
RAMADI, Iraq Oct 31 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
neighbours 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 neighbours 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 organising 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
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
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
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
"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."