Iran re­cruits thou­sands to join As­sad’s troops

Many fear their re­turn will fuel sec­tar­ian strife

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - WORLD - By Kathy Gannon

IS­LAM­ABAD — Thou­sands of Shi­ite Mus­lims from Afghanistan and Pak­istan are be­ing re­cruited by Iran to fight with Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s forces in Syria, lured by prom­ises of hous­ing, a monthly salary of up to $600 and the pos­si­bil­ity of em­ploy­ment in Iran when they re­turn, say coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials and an­a­lysts.

Th­ese fight­ers, who have re­ceived pub­lic praise from Iran’s supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, even have their own brigades, but coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials in both coun­tries worry about the may­hem they might cause when they re­turn home to coun­tries al­ready wrestling with a ma­jor mil­i­tant prob­lem.

Amir Toumaj, Iran re­search an­a­lyst at the U.S.-based Foun­da­tion for the De­fense of Democ­ra­cies, said the num­ber of fight­ers is fluid but as many as 6,000 Afghans are fight­ing for As­sad, while the num­ber of Pak­ista­nis, who fight un­der the ban­ner of the Zain­abay­oun Bri­gade, is in the hun­dreds.

In Afghanistan, stepped-up at­tacks on mi­nor­ity Shi­ites claimed by the up­start Is­lamic State group af­fil­i­ate known as Is­lamic State in the Kho­rasan Prov­ince could be pay­back against Afghan Shi­ites in Syria fight­ing un­der the ban­ner of the Fa­ti­may­oun Bri­gade, Toumaj said. Kho­rasan is an an­cient name for an area that in­cluded parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Cen­tral Asia.

“Peo­ple were ex­pect­ing blow­back,” Toumaj said. IS “it­self has its own strat­egy to in­flame sec­tar­ian strife.”

Shi­ites in Afghanistan are fright­ened. Wor­ship­pers at a re­cent Fri­day prayer ser­vice said Shi­ite mosques in the Afghan cap­i­tal, in­clud­ing the largest, Ibrahim Khalil mosque, were barely a third full. Pre­vi­ously on Fri­days — the Is­lamic holy day — the faith­ful were so many that the over­flow of­ten spilled out on the street out­side the mosque.

Mo­hammed Naim, a Shi­ite restau­rant owner in Kabul is­sued a plea to Iran: “Please don’t send the poor Afghan Shia refugees to fight in Syria be­cause then Daesh at­tacks di­rectly on Shias,” he said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State group.

Pak­istan has also been tar­geted by the IS in Kho­rasan prov­ince. IS has claimed sev­eral bru­tal at­tacks on the coun­try’s Shi­ite com­mu­nity, send­ing sui­cide bombers to shrines they fre­quent, killing scores of devo­tees.

A Pak­istani in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he is not au­tho­rized to speak to the me­dia, said re­cruits are also com­ing from north­ern Gil­git and Baltistan. Re­cruiters are of­ten Shi­ite cler­ics with ties to Iran, some of whom have stud­ied in sem­i­nar­ies in Iran’s Qom and Mash­had cities, said a se­cond Pak­istani of­fi­cial, who also spoke on con­di­tion he not be iden­ti­fied be­cause he still op­er­ates in the area and ex­pos­ing his iden­tity would en­dan­ger him.

Yet fight­ers sign up for many rea­sons. Some are in­spired to go to Syria to pro­tect sites con­sid­ered holy to Shi­ite Mus­lims, like the shrine hon­or­ing Sayyida Zainab, the grand­daugh­ter of Is­lam’s Prophet Muhammed. Lo­cated in the Syr­ian cap­i­tal of Da­m­as­cus, the shrine was at­tacked by Syr­ian rebels in 2013. Oth­ers sign up for the monthly stipend and the prom­ise of a house. For those re­cruited from among the more than 1 mil­lion Afghan refugees still liv­ing in Iran it’s of­ten the prom­ise of per­ma­nent res­i­dence in Iran. For Shi­ites in Pak­istan’s Parachi­nar it is out­rage at the re­lent­less at­tacks by Sunni mil­i­tants that drives them to sign up for bat­tle in Syria, said Toumaj.

Mir Hus­sain Naseri, a mem­ber of Afghanistan’s Shi­ite cler­ics’ coun­cil, said Shi­ites are ob­li­gated to pro­tect re­li­gious shrines in Iraq and Syria.

“Afghans are go­ing to Syria to pro­tect the holy places against at­tacks by Daesh,” he said. “Daesh is the enemy of Shias.”

Eh­san Ghani, chief of Pak­istan’s Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Au­thor­ity, told The

As­so­ci­ated Press that his or­ga­ni­za­tion is sift­ing through hun­dreds of doc­u­ments, in­clud­ing im­mi­gra­tion files, to put a fig­ure on the num­bers of Pak­ista­nis fight­ing on both sides of the many Mid­dle East con­flicts, in­clud­ing Syria. But it’s a cum­ber­some process.

Pak­istan’s many in­tel­li­gence agen­cies as well as the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments are in­volved in the search, said Ghani, ex­plain­ing that Pak­istan wants num­bers in or­der to de­vise a pol­icy to deal with them when they re­turn home. Un­til now, Pak­istan has de­nied the pres­ence of the Is­lamic State group in Pak­istan.

Alireza Nader, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst at the U.S.-based RAND Corp., said Afghan and Pak­istani re­cruits also pro­vide Iran with fu­ture armies that Tehran can em­ploy.

De­spite al­le­ga­tions that Iran is aid­ing the Tal­iban in Afghanistan, Nader said bat­tle-hard­ened Shi­ite fight­ers are Tehran’s weapon should re­la­tions with an Afghan gov­ern­ment that in­cludes the rad­i­cal ma­jor­ity Sunni re­li­gious move­ment de­te­ri­o­rate.

“Once the Syr­ian civil war dies down Iran is go­ing to have thou­sands, if not tens of thou­sands, of mili­tia un­der its con­trol to use in other con­flicts,” he said. “There is a po­ten­tial of Iran get­ting more in­volved in Afghanistan us­ing mili­tia be­cause Iran is go­ing to be re­ally con­cerned about se­cu­rity on its bor­der, and it would make sense to use a proxy force.”

Ar­shad Butt The As­so­ci­ated Press

Shi­ites mourn in Fe­bru­ary 2013 next to the bod­ies of their rel­a­tives, vic­tims of bomb­ing that killed scores of peo­ple in Quetta, Pak­istan.

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