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Syria crisis swells sect tensions beyond its border

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NAJAF, Iraq >> Abu Ali fled his life as a Shiite cleric and student in Homs, the besieged Syrian city at the center of an increasingly bloody uprising, but it was not the government he feared.

It was the rebels, who he said killed three of his cousins in December and dumped a body in the family garbage bin.

“I can’t be in Homs because I will get killed there,” he said from this religious city in Iraq where he has taken refuge. “Not just me, but all Shiites.”

Like his fellow Shiites in Iraq, Abu Ali, who used his nickname to protect his family back in Syria, said he regards the Syrian rebels as terrorists, not freedom fighters, underscoring one of the complexities of a bloody civil conflict that has persisted as diplomatic efforts have failed. In spite of President Bashar Assad’s willingness to unleash a professional military on a civilian population, with lethal results, Assad retains some support at home and abroad from allies, including religious and ethnic minorities who for decades relied on the police state for protection from sectarian aggression.

“What the government is doing is trying to protect the people,” Abu Ali said, echoing the Assad government’s propaganda. “They are targeting terrorist groups in the area.”

The insurrection in Syria, led by the country’s Sunni majority in opposition to a government dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism, is increasingly unpredictable and dangerous because it is aggravating sectarian tensions beyond its borders in a region already shaken by religious and ethnic divisions.

For many in the region, the fight in Syria is less about liberating a people under dictatorship than it is about power and self-interest. Syria is drawing in sectarian forces from its neighbors, and threatening to spill its conflict into a wider conflagration. There have already been sparks in neighboring Lebanon, where Sunnis and Alawites have skirmished.

And here in Iraq, where Shiites are a majority, the events across the border have put the nation on edge while hardening a sectarian schism. As Abu Ali discovered, Iraq’s Shiites are now lined up on the side of a Baathist dictatorship in Syria, less than a decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled the rule of Saddam Hussein and his own Baath Party, which for decades had repressed and brutalized the Shiites.

“This is difficult,” said Sheik Ali Nujafi, the son of one of Najaf’s top clerics and his chief spokesman, of the Shiite support for Assad. “But what is worse is what would come next.”

The paradox, of Shiites supporting a Baathist dictator next door, has laid bare a tenet of the old power structure that for so long helped preserve the Middle East’s strongmen. Minorities often remained loyal and pliant and in exchange were given room to carve out communities, even if they were more broadly discriminated against.

As dictators have fallen in neighboring countries, religious and ethnic identities and alliances have only hardened, while notions of citizenship remain slow to take hold. The fighting in Syria has exacerbated that, as Shiites worry that a takeover of Syria by its Sunni majority would not only herald a new sectarian war but actually the apocalypse.

People here say that is not hyperbole, but a perception based in faith. Some Shiites here see the burgeoning civil war in Syria as the ominous start to the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time. According to Shiite lore, Sufyani — a devil-like, apocryphal figure in Islam — gathers an army in Syria and after conquering that land turns his wrath on Iraq’s Shiites.

“Among these stories we get from the prophet and his family is that Sufyani will come out and will start to kill the believers in Syria, and then come to Iraq, where there will be many killings and massacres,” Nujafi said.

He said events in Syria were “similar but not completely the same” as the story of Sufyani. With an easy grasp of history, he recalled the siege of Najaf and the sacking of Karbala, another holy city to the north, in the early 1800s by radically orthodox Sunni Muslims, an invasion that raised the same apocalyptic fears Shiites have now.

In Hilla, another Shiite town north of here, Mohammed Tawfiq al-Rubaie, the representative for Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most widely followed Shiite religious leader in Iraq, said, “We wish for the survival of Bashar al-Assad, but the prophecies of the Shiite books expect him to be killed.”

Rubaie explained what Shiites believe would happen if the Assad government were toppled by Sunnis: “We expect that the blood would run heavy in Iraq if they held power in Syria, because they think that Shiites are infidels and our lives, our money and our women are permissible for them to take, and that killing us is one of the requirements to enter paradise.”

As Western and Arab governments consider actions to stop the bloodshed — options that have been explored include more aggressive diplomacy, arming the rebels or military intervention — those discussions have been encumbered by a lack of cohesion among the Syrian opposition, evidence that some of the rebels may be affiliated with al-Qaida and credible reports of sectarian killings.

At the core of the unity problem is an issue of sectarian identification. Sunni radicals with the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes the local branch of al-Qaida, have urged fighters to go to Syria, which makes it harder for the West to embrace the opposition. Recently the group released a statement on its website calling for new violence against Shiites here in Iraq, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors the communications of jihadi groups.

Syria’s minorities have the example of Iraq in considering their own future, should the Assad government fall: Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and others were brutally persecuted by insurgents. In Egypt, where a similar paradigm was toppled with the long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak, Christians have experienced more sectarian violence, increasing political marginalization and a growing link between Islamic identity and citizenship.

“Christians are all saying that Syria risks becoming the new Iraq, a country divided among ethnic and religious lines where there is no place for Christians,” said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, the editor in chief of AsiaNews, a Catholic news agency. Syria, while not a democracy, “at least protects them,” he said.

Abu Ali recalled hearing anti-Shiite slogans chanted in Homs by rebels in opposition to Syria’s alliance with Iran, which, like Iraq, is a majority-Shiite state in a region that is predominantly Sunni. He heard calls for “Christians to go to Beirut,” and “Alawites to the grave.”

In Najaf on a recent Sunday, Abu Ali sat on a couch in the office of a local religious leader who had taken him in. Outside, chickens roamed the narrow streets lined by flat-roofed concrete homes, jostling for space with women covered in black abayas and security men who guarded the office with Kalashnikovs.

At the main checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, a billboard hailed Najaf, where millions come each year to visit the Imam Ali Shrine, as this year’s “capital of Islamic culture.”

On this day, Syria was holding a vote on a new constitution, an effort at reform by the Assad government that much of the international community regarded as a farce, but that Abu Ali believed was a step in good faith to stop the violence.

“Of course, the government needs to reform, and there needs to be more freedom and more rights,” he said. “The government is trying to make reforms, but no one is listening.”

But his fear, he said, is that Syria is heading down the same bloody path that Iraq followed after the U.S. invasion.

“In the neighborhoods that are Sunni, they are kicking out Shiites and using their homes as bases and for the storing of weapons,” he said.

He added, “There’s real terror among the Shiites there.”

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