World and Nation

In Syria, Iraqis see replays of their past and fears for future

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 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 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 Assad as an intervention on the side of a Sunni-led, al-Qaida-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-Qaida 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 Assad that President Barack 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.