The radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr arrived in Beirut Monday, March 11, with a party of lawmakers from the parliamentary bloc he heads. One of his aides told the National Iraqi News Agency that al-Sadr would confer with the Lebanese officials dealing with the Syrian crisis and discuss its impact on Iraq.
This scarcely-noticed event brings out in the open the increasingly vital role played by paramilitary forces and sectarian militias in the expanding Syrian conflict.
The Mahdi Army, the militia headed by this extremist Shiite cleric, first gained prominence by its failed revolts against the US forces after the 2003 invasion. A less known fact is that Hizballah’s late security chief, Imad Mughniyeh (assassinated in Damascus in 2008), designed the Iraqi Shiite Mahdi Army on the model of the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah and, through 2003 to 2005, established its offshoots in
the Shiite cities of southern Iraq and Baghdad’s quarters.
In those years, Al Sadr kept his ties with Hizballah under cover. For his secret meetings with Hizballah’s secretary Hassan Nasrallah, he would travel to Tehran, the home ground of their shared patron, Iran.
The Iraqi turning-point in the Syrian conflict
Eight years later, in March 2013, the Iraqi cleric is meeting openly with Nasrallah in Beirut for the first time, evidence of how much water has flown under the bridges of the Middle East in the intervening years and how far the Mahdi Army has spread its wings into foreign conflicts.
Today, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources reveal, entire Mahdi Army brigades, each 300-400-strong, are fighting alongside Hizballah to save the Assad regime in Syria.
Other Mahdi brigades are stationed in Lebanon as a strategic reserve in case the Hizballah leader needs help against Sunni military aggression.
Al-Sadr’s open visit to Beirut was authorized by Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head the Revolutionary Guards Al Qods Force. Tehran had no qualms about betraying the fact that radical Iraqi Shiites are fighting for Bashar Assad in Syria and closely committed to Hizballah in Lebanon.
It was not by chance that the Sadr visit to Beirut was revealed on March 11, the day that Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for killing 48 Syrian soldiers and agents in a battle last week on Iraqi soil.
Al Qaeda stated that the presence of Syrian troops in Iraq attested to collusion between the Shiite-led Nuri al–Maliki government in Baghdad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The incident was first presented in this way: Unidentified gunmen last week attacked a convoy of Syrians who had fled across the border into Iraq from a Syrian rebel advance, and were being escorted back home through the western province of Anbar, Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland.
According to a statement posted online by al Qaeda's Iraqi wing, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), “Military detachments succeeded in annihilating an entire column of the Safavid army.” (The Safavid dynasty ruled Shiite Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries.)
“The lions of the desert and the men entrusted with difficult missions laid ambushes on the road leading to the crossing," said Iraqi al Qaeda. The group said the presence of the Syrians in Iraq showed the Baghdad government's "firm cooperation" with Assad.
A straight knock-down Sunni-Shiite sectarian fight
These two events in the second week of March exposed five major offshoots of the Syrian war, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and counterterrorism sources report:
1. Its predicted spillover effect has strongly and substantially reached Lebanon and Iraq;
2. Shiite armed strength is advancing in a pincer movement to maintain the continuous military links forged between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut and to block the parallel Sunni and al Qaeda drive to encircle Maliki’s Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad.
3. The Syrian war is metamorphosing into a straight knock-down fight between Sunni and Shiite sectarian forces for domination of the Muslim Arab world.
4. The incident in Iraq which ended fatally for a Syrian military column shows Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese Shiite forces already battling Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis for terrain.
(See a separate item in this issue on the Sunni Crescent).
5. In Iraq, Sunnis, Shiites, Al-Qaeda and Kurds are also vying violently for the domination of land.
One of the oddities of this unfolding tangle of conflicts is the recruitment of Christian militias to fight for Bashar Assad. The Syrian-Iranian military command has placed Christian militiamen alongside Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite brigades to make up for the shortcomings of the regular Syrian army.
According to some sources, some 70 percent of the army is not taking part in combat because their loyalty to Assad is in question.
The appearance of Shiite and Christian combatants on the battlefield, as fresh fighting strength to eke out the exhausted and depleted Syrian military ranks, has taken the Syrian rebels aback with a new and unforeseen challenge.