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updated 2/13/2012 1:00:17 AM ET 2012-02-13T06:00:17

Not so long ago, Syrians worked to send weapons and fighters into Iraq to help Sunnis fighting a sectarian conflict; suddenly, it is the other way around.

A belated celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on the outskirts of this western Iraqi city on Saturday quickly took on the trappings of a rally for Syria’s rebels. Young boys waved the old green, black and white flag Syria adopted in the 1930s after declaring independence from the French. Others collected money to send aid and weapons to the fighters opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s government across the border.

“I wish I could go there with my gun and fight,” said Sheik Hamid al-Hais, a tribal leader interviewed at his compound in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province.

Regional conflict
It is increasingly clear that Syria’s sectarian war is becoming the regional conflict that analysts have long feared. The rush of recent events — including bombings and assassinations in Damascus and Aleppo, and intensifying violence in northern Lebanon coming directly out of the sectarian hostilities in Syria — suggest that the Assad government now also faces antagonists across its borders.

Like Iraq and Afghanistan before it, analysts say, Syria is likely to become the training ground for a new era of international conflict, and jihadists are already signing up. This weekend, Al Qaeda’s ideological leadership and, more troublingly, the more mainstream Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, called for jihadists around the world to fight Mr. Assad’s government.

Nowhere is the cross-border nature of sectarian hostilities more clear than in Iraq’s western desert, where Sunni Arabs are beginning to rally to the cause of the Syrian opposition and, in the process, perhaps strengthen their hand in dealings with an antagonistic Shiite-led national government in Baghdad.

A weapons dealer who operates in Anbar, who said he goes by the alias Ahmed al-Masri, said, “Five months ago I was told that the Syrian brothers are in need of weapons. I started to buy the weapons from the same guys that I previously sold to — the fighters of Anbar and Mosul. I used to bring them from Syria; now it’s the other way around.”

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The man said he was selling mortars, grenades and rifles, and that his contact in Syria was also an Iraqi. In some instances, he said Iraqis were giving away weapons, and in those cases he charged money only to transport them across the border.

“It’s a good business, but it’s not easy money,” he said. “It’s risky, but this is life.”

Tribal leaders and security officials describe a small but increasing flow of weapons to Syria from Anbar Province and areas around Mosul, the northern city that is a headquarters for Al Qaeda in Iraq. For some weapons smugglers the price of an automatic rifle has increased dramatically — to $2,000 from about $300, according to one account.

Abdul Rahim al-Shammari, the head of the provincial council’s security committee in Mosul, said explosives and weapons were being smuggled through the border village of Rabia. A weapons trader in the area, who spoke anonymously because of the nature of his work, described smuggling weapons parts in empty cigarette cartons and said he recently made a $4,000 profit selling a PKC rifle. Across the border, he said, some Syrians were trading sheep and cows for weapons.

The sympathies for the Syrian rebels here in Anbar are borne from centuries-old tribal connections and, as a region dominated by Sunni Arabs, a shared sect.

“We have common tribes and a common border,” said Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, interviewed recently at his mansion in Baghdad, where he keeps a pet lion penned in the front yard. Mr. Hatem described Mr. Assad as a “butcher” and said that men in Anbar, his ancestral home, were already trying to help the opposition. “Yes, they are giving weapons. They have to,” he said, adding that Anbar tribal leaders were to meet this week to discuss ways to support the rebels.

Support from Al Qaeda
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Iraq, whose membership has declined substantially in recent years, is trying to take advantage of the violence in Syria. A recent report by the McClatchy news agency quoted unidentified American officials as saying that Al Qaeda in Iraq was behind two deadly bombings in Damascus and probably also the bombing on Friday in Aleppo. In interviews, American officials in Baghdad said they believed that was likely, but had no evidence to confirm it.

On Saturday, Ayman al-Zawahri, the ideological leader of Al Qaeda worldwide, issued a statement urging Muslims in the region — he specifically mentioned Iraq — to support the uprising, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist communications.

In Jordan, the influential Muslim Brotherhood issued a call to arms of its own, calling it a duty for Muslims everywhere to oppose Mr. Assad’s government in Syria in a holy war, using any means necessary. “Supporting the Syrian people and Free Syrian Army is a duty, as they are facing the injustice and oppression of the regime,” the group said on its Web site.

On its Web site, Al Qaeda in Iraq, also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq, has stated, “a lot of Syrians fought side-by-side with the Islamic State of Iraq, and it is good news to hear about the arrival of Iraqi fighters to fight with their brethren in Syria.” The group has also advised Syrian rebels to use the type of roadside bombs that proved so deadly in the Iraq war.

Some leaders in Anbar, where Al Qaeda has very little support, insisted that their region’s assistance to Syria is only humanitarian. Officials in Falluja have said they are establishing a camp in the expectation of refugees.

“The people here want to help the people of Syria, not with weapons, but with whatever other help we can give them,” said Faisel al-Esawi, a member of the Anbar Provincial Council.

Referring to Syria’s open acceptance of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees during the war here, he said, “we need to stand next to the Syrian people, just like they stood next to us.”

The Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad has walked a fine line with its policy toward Syria, offering outright support neither to the Assad government nor the opposition.

“We are immediate neighbors,” said Hosyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister. “It’s like Mexico for the United States. With a change in Syria, everyone fears the spillover.”

Mr. Zebari added, “this doesn’t mean we support Assad’s regime. We can’t really oppose the Syrian people.”

Iran’s influence also factors into how Iraq calculates its Syria policy. The Iranian government is perhaps the closest friend of the Assad government, and Iraq does not want to alienate Iran, which exerts a degree of political control over the Iraqi leaders and backs militias here. There is also the fear that if Syria collapses, Iran will compensate for losing an ally in Syria by expanding its influence over Iraqi affairs.

In Anbar, the anger toward the central government’s Syria policy is palpable.

Hours before the gathering Saturday in Falluja, a similar event was held at a soccer stadium in Ramadi. In celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, attendees also waved the version of the Syrian flag in use before the Assad family assumed power.

“We’re here to support Syria and we want to stop the bloodshed,” said Sheik Muhammad Hamis Abu Risha. “We want the Iraqi government to support the people, not the killers. They are helping the Syrian government kill those Muslims.”

Reporting was contributed by Zaid Thaker, Yasir Ghazi and Omar al-Jawoshy from Baghdad, Neil MacFarquhar and Rania Kadri from Beirut, Lebanon, and employees of The New York Times from Falluja, Ramadi and Mosul, Iraq.

This article, "For Iraqis, aid to Syrian rebels repays a debt," first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

Video: Chaos continues in Syria as violence rages

  1. Closed captioning of: Chaos continues in Syria as violence rages

    >>> to syria, where at least 17 people were killed as the violence rages on. the crisis there becoming more dire with each passing day. and tonight, the government crackdown is spreading over the border. we get the latest from nbc's ayman mohyeldin.

    >> reporter: a young child running under fire. dramatically rescued from a sniper's bullet. the daily barrage of shelling and gun fire has destroyed homes all across the country. life for many has become unbearable. but for the syrian government, this is a war against terrorism. which it claims has killed 2,000 of its soldiers. and today for the first time a hig high-ranking officer was killed in the capital itself. that comes after two explosions rocked military installations in the largest city, aleppo. the attacks have raised fears that the violence can spread to cities that are considered strong holds of the regime and that have been relatively untouched by the 11-month uprising. the u.s. state department released the satellite images showing tanks positioned on the outskirts of cities like homs. the now evacuated u.s. ambassador to syria dismisses the idea that the government is the victim in this conflict.

    >> i do not want the syrian government to try through some propaganda scheme to try to hide the truth. the syrian government needs to stop the violence .

    >> reporter: but for now, the syrian government is still pushing ahead with its military crackdown. seven days it's pounded the city of homs, killing close to 400 people according to syrian opposition activists. the death toll cannot be independently verified. in neighboring lebanon, supporters of syrian president assad clashed with a group that opposes his regime. raising fears that it could soon spill over the border. as the world watches, mourners gather daily to mark their passing of new victims of the violence. ayman mohyeldin, cairo.

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