Across a Border, Iraqis See Replays of Past and Fears for Future

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BAGHDAD -- Abu Mohaned spent Tuesday night washing the bodies of victims of that evening's car bombs, preparing them for burial. When a couple of roadside bombs went off the next day, he did the same thing.

When he is not here, tending to the dead, he says, he is in Syria fighting to defend the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Both duties, he says, are in many respects part of the same fight -- burying Shiites killed in sectarian fighting in Iraq, and blocking radical Sunnis from taking control of Syria.

Now that the United States is considering missile strikes on Syria, Iraqi Shiites like Abu Mohaned say they see history repeating itself -- even if across a border -- and they are prepared to once again take on a familiar adversary. If the United States strikes Syria, Iraqi Shiites will see it as their fight, too, and pour across the border to assist Mr. Assad, many people here said.

"No honorable man will accept what the Americans want to do in Syria," Abu Mohaned said, reflecting the view of Iraq's Shiite majority who see any threat to Mr. Assad as an intervention on the side of a Sunni-led, Al Qaeda-aligned rebellion.

As the debate over military action in Syria has unfolded in the West, Iraq's own painful history with American military intervention, and the false intelligence put forward to justify it, has in many ways provided a counternarrative to those who support intervention. Haunted by the intelligence failures, the British Parliament voted against strikes on Syria. For the same reason, the American public, polls show, is also hesitant to engage in a new military strike in the Middle East.

For Iraqis, the fate of the two countries is seen as inextricably intertwined, and thus they believe they have a great deal at stake in what decision is made in Washington. The war in Iraq has already inflamed sectarian tensions, emboldening Sunni extremists to raise the tempo of attacks against the Shiite-dominated government, while also motivating Shiite men, with support from Iran, to travel to Syria to fight alongside the government forces and their ally, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

"America wants to help the extremists to control Syria, but they are wrong because we will defend our sect," said Abu Mohaned, who is in his mid-40s and said any American military action would inspire Iraqi Shiites to send fighters and weapons into Syria. "They will commit a big mistake if they think it will be easy to strike Syria and change everything. We all have faith that God is on our side, and we will show them that the Shiites in all the world are able to fight their proxies from Al Qaeda and Nusra and the hated Free Syrian Army."

Iraqis have their own history to draw on in making judgments about possible American military intervention in Syria. The sort of limited strikes against Mr. Assad that President Obama has proposed remind many Iraqis not of the 2003 invasion but of the intermittent strikes against Saddam Hussein's regime in the late 1990s. Many Iraqis remember those strikes, undertaken by the Clinton administration, as having little effect on Mr. Hussein's brutality against his own population, and only adding to the misery of the population.

"In Iraq, we lived the experience of the international sanctions and the disciplining of the former dictatorial regime by missile strikes, from time to time, against the facilities and infrastructure of the Iraqi state," wrote Fakri Karim, the editor of Al-Mada newspaper, in a column this week.

Those strikes, he said, resulted in only "more misery and impoverishment, and the disintegration of the social fabric." He added, "What the regime won was more indulging in the humiliation of citizens, and the starving and flattening of their aspirations."

And even some Iraqi Sunnis, who otherwise are rooting for a rebel victory in Syria, see potential American involvement as only adding to the chaos, in Syria and in Iraq.

"If Syria is bombed, it means things will get worse in Iraq," said Adbul al-Adhami, 56, a Sunni businessman who lives in Baghdad. "The Shiite militias will threaten any American interest in Iraq."

Sunnis also say that any military action against Mr. Assad would weaken him and strengthen the rebels -- an outcome they ostensibly desire. But they worry about the consequences, too, saying it could ricochet back to Iraq by hardening the line taken by the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and resurgent Shiite militias here, against Iraq's Sunni population.

Already, with the rise in violence here perpetuated by Sunni extremists, Mr. Maliki's security forces have cracked down on Sunni areas, arresting hundreds, according to activist groups, with no ties to terrorism. Shiite militias, in turn, have remobilized, and in some areas have recently been blamed for displacing large numbers of Sunnis.

"Bombing Bashar will increase the hatred from Maliki and his militias against the Sunnis in Iraq as revenge," said Noor Hammid, 32, a schoolteacher who lives in a Sunni district of Baghdad. "Shiites will feel that they lost their fight in Syria, which will cut the Shiite chain of Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon."

American diplomats here also worry that if their government attacks Syria, the effect will be to aggravate the already tense relationship between Iraq and the United States.

When the Syrian uprising turned violent more than two years ago, American officials here, trying to nurture a new relationship based on diplomatic ties with a country emerging from a long occupation, pushed the Iraqis to see the conflict in Syria as they did: that the rebels represented the democratic aspirations of the people and that Mr. Assad must go.

As Al Qaeda-allied rebels took on a growing role in Syria, that case became harder to make. And while the Iraqi government has maintained in public that it is neutral on Syria, and wishes only for a political solution, the reality is that the Shiite ruling class here is rooting for victory for Mr. Assad.

Last week, as the debate over possible military strikes on Syria intensified in Washington, Mr. Maliki met here with the American ambassador, Robert S. Beecroft, to voice his opposition.

Afterward, in an interview, Ali al-Mousawi, Mr. Maliki's spokesman, summarized the exchange.

"We told him that such action, as we see it, will not help the Syrian people, and that the regime in Syria will not be affected by such a strike," said Mr. Mousawi. "But Assad may gain more benefits, support and legitimacy. Therefore, we think that the biggest losers are going to be the people of Syria and the neighboring countries."

Yasir Ghazi contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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