By Tom Walker, Director, Assaye Risk
Despite the ever present daily churn of violence in Iraq the country experienced a degree of hiatus this week with a slow down in the number of daily high impact mass fatality attacks that have been a key feature of the period of April / May 2013. Despite a slow down in attack tempo the numbers of fatalities has remained higher than last week but lower than the heightened period post the national local elections and the attack on Haweeja. This week approx. 155 were killed in Iraq up 66 from last week.
A key feature of the weeks security issues was a significant increase in attacks against Shia targets, especially in the Southern belt and specifically in Basra and Najaf, both being cities where Sunni insurgent groups have limited penetration. What has become clear is that the regional sectarian conflict in Syria is mobilizing many hundreds of Shia fighters and we are witnessing contra forces as Sunni elements seek to gain the ascendancy both in Iraq and Syria.
The conflict has already drawn in streams of Sunni Islamist fighters on the Syrian rebel side, while Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shia Hezbollah is openly fighting for Assad. Now the flow of Iraqi militiamen across the border is also casting doubt on the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government's official position of neutrality in the Syrian civil war that has killed 90,000 people in more than two years.
In the last few months, Iraqi Shi'ite militias have begun openly recognizing their formerly clandestine role in Syria, which has helped to double their recruitment, according to militia commanders. Militants say around 50 Iraqi Shi'ites fly to Damascus every week to fight, often alongside Assad's troops or to protect the Sayyida Zeinab shrine on the outskirts of Damascus, a particularly holy place for Shi'ites.
For many Shia Syria's upheaval is a nightmare; they believe a collapse of Assad's government will bring to power a hostile Sunni regime that will inflame Iraq's own Sunni-Shi'ite tensions.
Iraq says it has a policy of non-interference in Syria, and keeps channels open with Assad's government and the opposition. But Western countries accuse Baghdad of turning a blind eye to support for Assad, such as allowing Iranian aircraft to use its airspace for flying military equipment to Syria.
Baghdad dismisses those charges and denies it is allowing Shi'ite militants to travel freely to Syria or giving them any logistical support. Privately, Shi'ite politicians, officials and militant leaders acknowledge support is provided to Assad, and that means allowing Shi'ite fighters to flow into Syria.
"Shi'ite politicians believe the best way to keep Sunni extremist fighters out of Iraq is by keeping them busy in Syria," said a Maliki adviser, who talked in condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "All the Iraqi government has done so far, is to look the other way to the militant movements from Iraq to Syria," he said and this clearly has significant implications for the delicate security situation in Iraq.