BAGHDAD — Hundreds in Baghdad mourned on Tuesday a Shiite fighter killed in Syria, one of an unknown number of Iraqis who went to fight in the neighboring country for what they consider a religious duty to protect Shiite shrines.
The Syrian conflict began with peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad's regime in March 2011 but deteriorated into an all-out civil war after a violent government crackdown. The U.N says more than 93,000 people have been killed and millions displaced by the fighting.
The civil war is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines, with Sunnis dominating the rebel ranks while the Assad regime is mostly made up of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam. The fighting is threatening the stability of Syria's neighbors – including Iraq.
Iraq finds itself increasingly drawn into the conflict. Al-Qaida-linked Sunni militants from Iraq are cooperating with hard-line Islamists among the Syrian rebels, while Shiite fighters are joining militiamen from Lebanon's Hezbollah to fight alongside Assad's Iranian-backed regime.
A spokesman for Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades, which has been sending fighters to Syria, said the 50-year old Hameed Abdul-Hassan al-Missari was killed three days ago. Sheik Saad al-Showaily would not discuss the circumstances of al-Missari's death, but said he was killed while "defending" the revered Shiite shrine of Sayida Zeinab outside the capital, Damascus. He added that al-Missari had left for Syria two months ago.
Members of Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades in military uniforms carried the casket wrapped in the group's yellow flag. Other mourners at the funeral procession in Baghdad's Shiite district of Kazimiyah held the slain fighter picture and shouted: "We are at your disposal, Zeinab."
Iraq's government has stayed neutral in the Syrian conflict, repeatedly calling for a peaceful, political solution to the crisis. It denies having any role in sending fighters.