BEIRUT: Iraqi Shiite volunteers who have been fighting in Syria are heading home to battle an offensive that has brought militants to near Baghdad, according to media reports and an anti-regime monitoring group.
Thousands of Iraqi Shiites had flocked to Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces against mainly Sunni rebels.
Many volunteered to defend the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, a revered Shiite shrine in southeast Damascus.
However, they are believed to have served on several different fronts around the country, from areas inside Damascus and the Qalamoun region on the border with Lebanon, to the city of Aleppo.
Iraqi volunteers have headed home from the Mliha area, southeast of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday.
Their positions were taken over by fighters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
“The Iraqi pro-Assad fighters’ pullout from the Mliha area was accompanied by a relative lull in the fighting around there,” he said.
“But that does not mean the regime has been left defenseless, as Hezbollah has deployed new troops to fill the gap.”
Some reports have put their numbers as high as 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, compared to around 5,000 fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
But as Sunni insurgents swept up a large chunk of northern and north-central Iraq in a lightning offensive over the past week, the volunteers have begun heading home in response to a rallying cry by top Shiite religious scholar Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Media reports have said the withdrawal also covered Iraqi Shiites fighting in Aleppo, although the majority of reported departures have been in the vicinity of the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, as well as the nearby Sayyida Zeinab area.