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Iraqi Shiites Threaten to Join Fight in Syria

Thousands of Shiite Muslims from Iraq and beyond will take up arms against Sunni al-Qaida “savages” in Syria, if fellow Shiites or their shrines come under attack again, a powerful minister in Iraq’s Shiite-led government said.

It would be impossible to “sit idle while the Shiites are being attacked,” while the United States and Western allies arm and finance the mainly Sunni rebels fighting against Syria’s government, Hadi al-Amiri told Reuters in an interview.

Amiri, Iraq’s transport minister, is head of the Badr Organization, a political movement that arose from a heavily armed, Iran-trained militia and many of whose members are now part of Iraq’s security forces.

After two years of fighting that has left 93,000 dead, the Syrian civil war is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines, with mainly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shiite Islam.

The conflict is splintering the Middle East along a divide between the two main denominations of Islam, becoming a battlefield in a proxy war between Assad’s main regional ally, Shiite Iran, and his Sunni enemies in Turkey and the Gulf Arab states.

With Russia and Iran arming Assad’s forces, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militia joining the war on Assad’s behalf, Western powers have agreed in the last week to increase aid to the mainly Sunni rebels.

Amiri said Shiites had been galvanized by the killing of approximately 60 members of their sect at the hands of Sunni insurgents in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zor earlier this month.

“If another attack against Shiites takes place similar to Deir al-Zor, or against the shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab, not only a handful of men, but thousands of Shiite men will go to fight alongside the regime and against al-Qaida and whoever backs al-Qaida,” Amiri said.

“After Deir al-Zor, thousands of Shiite youths from Iraq and all over the world will head to fight in Syria. If 300 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters changed the equation in Syria, Iraqi young men will go to Syria to change it a hundred times over,” Amiri said, referring to Hezbollah forces whose intervention enabled Assad loyalists retake the town of Qusair this month.

Traditional Shiites revere the Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali and 11 of his descendants as imams, maintaining shrines to them across the Middle East. The Sayyeda Zeinab shrine south of Damascus, devoted to Ali’s daughter, now has hundreds of foreign Shiite volunteers guarding it from rebel attacks.

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