BEIRUT

Middle East

Iraq border town ready to repay debt to Syrians

The “Army of Free Iraqis” will patrol the border with Syria for any sign the Iraqi government is assisting the Assad regime.

Al-QAEM, Iraq: Residents of Al-Qaem, an Iraqi town near the Syrian border, aim to repay a debt to Syrians who provided them with supplies, fighters and weapons when the region was facing U.S. forces in 2005.

“The brothers in Syria stood with the Iraqis ... when U.S. forces surrounded us in 2005, and opened their border and their hearts to us,” Sheikh Mohammad al-Karbuli told AFP.  “They delivered us everything we needed – food, medicine, men and weapons ... from several places in Syria,” so we must “pay back to them the gratitude and charity in their ordeal.”

Abdul Nasser Mohammad al-Qaraghuli, who lives between Al-Qaem and the Syrian border, said that “we send them simple medical supplies now, and collect financial contributions from the wealthy people and we send [the contributions] to them.”

Al-Qaem, a town of about 137,000 people, is located in Anbar province some 340 kilometers west of Baghdad.

There are families and tribes, including major ones such as Al-Rawiyin, Al-Aniyin, Al-Karabla, Albu Mahal and Al-Salman, in the area that have ties by blood and marriage to those in Syria.

Tribal leaders say that relationships with Syrians extend to the towns of Deir al-Zour, Homs and Idlib.

“I sent $2,000 so far to help injured people in Syria,” tribal elder Abu Mujahid al-Luhaibi said, adding: “We send money to the families that we know through intermediaries.”

Karbuli said: “What is happening for the Syrian people now in Homs, Damascus, Deir al-Zour and other cities is an insult to dignity. The tribal leaders in Anbar especially must ... help our brothers in Syria.”

Since March last year, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has carried out a bloody crackdown on an uprising against his rule in which more than 6,000 people have been killed, according to a toll by rights activists.

While there are still regular civilian protests that turn deadly in Syria, the focus has shifted to armed conflict with regime forces.

Syria shares a roughly 600 km border with Iraq, more than half of it with the Sunni-majority Anbar province, which was once an insurgent center.

Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians, and of his opponents, are Sunni Muslims.

Iraq’s interior minister said in an interview with AFP that jihadists are moving from Iraq to Syria and arms are also being smuggled across the border to opponents of Assad’s regime.

A statement released Saturday by the Iraqi premier’s office meanwhile said that Iraq is taking measures to secure its border with Syria against weapons smuggling and the unauthorized movement of people.

A group of people in Al-Qaem this month announced the formation of the “Army of Free Iraqis” to provide assistance in Syria.

The group said in a statement that its “work will focus on controlling the border and searching with volunteers for any strange or suspicious movements by the Iraqi government toward assisting the Syrian government.”

The group’s leader, Abu Yasser, told AFP that “we will go immediately to fight in Syria if it is shown that the Iraqi government sends fighters to fight with the regime there.”

Abu Yasser, whose face was masked, traveled in a three-vehicle convoy with 12 men armed with automatic weapons.

Al-Qaem is also preparing for the possibility of receiving Syrian refugees.

Bilal al-Ani, the head of a local rights group, said that in the event Syrian refugees came to Al-Qaem, “we will receive them and provide them with all the necessary things and all that they want.”

Karbuli stressed that “if the government objects to opening camps, our houses are open to them.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 22, 2012, on page 9.

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