When they see the plight of their Syrian kinsmen across the border, the Sunni tribesmen of western Iraq understand their rage. But with their own experience of civil war still fresh, they want to stop arms from feeding the conflict next door.
Just a few years ago, this part of Iraq was caught in battle between al Qaeda, who used the area as a launchpad for their insurgency, and Sunni tribal leaders who wanted to kick them out.
After countless deaths and years of street fighting, tribal leaders in what had been Iraq’s most violent province wrested back control by 2008. Anbar’s town of Habbaniyah now lies quietly, its people living in one-storey Spanish-style houses dotting the dusty, tranquil flatland by the Euphrates.
Sitting in a large, pink-walled room in a nearby village where they once discussed battle plans against al Qaeda, tribal leaders said arming Syrians against President Bashar al-Assad would fuel the conflict and raise the number of civilian deaths.
“We do not accept that a single bullet reach the opposition from our sovereign land, from Iraq. The people and the authority have to solve it politically,” Sheikh Hamad Hnein said in his home in “Coolie Camp”, a village which still uses the name given to it by British troops at a nearby airbase who housed day laborers here in the 1930s.
As ardent Sunnis, the tribal leaders who were part of the Sunni Awakening force that turned against al Qaeda, sympathise with the crisis in Syria, where the mostly Sunni population is facing a crackdown by troops loyal to Assad, who is from an offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam.
Many of the tribes in Western Iraq share kinship ties with Sunni tribes across the border in Syria who oppose Assad.
“As simple people, we hope to do the impossible for the Syrian people. But this support, if it isn’t rational and logical, if it’s weapons and aggravation, then the people will pay the price, not the authorities,” said Sheikh Khaled Khalifa.
Iraqi officials and arms dealers have reported an influx of weapons and Sunni Muslim insurgents into Syria from Iraq, but so far it has not seemed to be an organized and sustained flow.
Two Islamist militant groups in Iraq have rejected a call by al-Qaeda to aid Syrian rebels in their revolt against Assad.
The tribal leaders, some in western dress and others in traditional robes and headdresses, spoke languidly over cardamom-infused tea before Friday prayers. Plastic fans with fake bronze embellishments dangled from the ceiling.
They acutely remember a time of violence. Just a hundred meters from where they sat, a suicide truck bomb killed at least 39 people when it exploded near a mosque in 2007 at the height of the sectarian warfare that engulfed Iraq.
Material, moral support
Driving about 85 km west from Baghdad to Coolie Camp, one passes the bridge in Fallujah from which militants hung the mutilated bodies of four American private security contractors in 2004. After that incident U.S. troops tried to storm Fallujah in two major battles, and the surrounding province became the heartland of Iraq’s insurgency for the next four years.
“Iraq lived through much harder circumstances than Syria,” said Sheikh Ali Ayed, wearing a traditional red-and-white chequered headdress.
“We extend the hand of help to any oppressed people who want to live in freedom,” he said, adding peaceful aid for Syria could come in the form of material and moral support.
Demonstrations in support of the Syrian people’s revolt have sprung up in Anbar’s main cities Fallujah and Ramadi in recent weeks. That’s as far as support goes, the tribal leaders said.
The sheikhs criticized Gulf Arab countries Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for backing the arming of Syrian rebels, and said they should exert more political pressure on Assad.
“The human casualties will increase, the innocent will lose their lives. The authorities will take over the weapons, and the population pays the price,” said Khalifa, when asked whether the opposition should be given more weapons.
“Where are the kings and rulers of other countries? Arab countries always take the position of spectators with each other,” he said.
Sheikh Hnein, who regularly travels to Syria as a merchant, said Qatar and Saudi Arabia were supporting the opposition at the expense of the “collapse of the state.”
“Foreign intervention should have the aim of solving, not escalating,” he said.
Western Iraq once looked to Syria as a bastion of peace. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees fled there. Now, the situation is reversing. Hnein said he cut short a recent visit to the suburbs of Damascus because life there was getting hard.
“Before you’d see taxis in the street until 2:00, 3:00 in the morning, now it’s like there’s a recession. I had to leave. I used to escape Iraq to relax in Syria,” he said. Every day dozens of Iraqi refugees were returning from Syria, he added.
Perhaps the biggest fear is the conflict in Syria could shatter the tenuous peace in Iraq. While masked gunmen no longer roam the streets, there is a lingering sense of fear. Few cars drive on the main highway into Fallujah, which is punctured with road bumps - reminders of previous attacks that left behind craters of mangled metal.
“Between one moment and the next, the security situation here can explode. There might be bombings, we are still living in a period of instability,” Khalifa said.
The sectarian overtones of the conflict in Syria have already spilled into Lebanon where Sunni-Shi’ite clashes have broken out in the northern city of Tripoli. The leaders insisted, however, that Iraq would not be dragged back into the sectarian conflict that killed tens of thousands of their countrymen.
“We have been through this crisis... It’s possible but people have wisened up because this is a conspiracy to kill the unity of the people,” Khalifah said.