Iran ral­lies Afghan, Pak­istani Shi­ites to fight in Syria

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - International - By Kathy Gannon

As­so­ci­ated Press

IS­LAM­ABAD — Thou­sands of Shi­ite Mus­lims from Afghanistan and Pak­istan are be­ing re­cruited by Iran to fight with Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad’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, in­ten­si­fied 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, Mr. Toumaj said. Kho­rasan is an an­cient name for an area that in­cluded parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Cen­tral Asia.

“Peo­ple were ex­pect­ing blow­back,” said Mr. Toumaj. The Is­lamic State “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 out­side­the 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 IS.

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, killing scores of devo­tees.

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