Iraqi border town on edge of Syria storm

Al Qaim, in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, reflects the tricky balancing act Iraq's Shiite leaders face in Syria, whose crisis is testing the Middle East's sectarian divide.

An Iraqi border policeman mans a machine gun at the Abu Kamal-Qaim border crossing, the main border post between Iraq and Syria. Al Qaim and its neighbouring Syrian counterpart Albu Kamal are on a strategic supply route for smugglers, gun-runners and now insurgents aiming to join the rebellion.
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AL QAIM, IRAQ // Syrian refugees squeeze against a closed gate at an Iraqi border post, reaching through its metal bars to clamour for water, and calling out to Iraqi cousins and brothers on the other side.

Yelling into their mobile phones, more Syrians perch on top of the concrete walls that divide the countries, waiting for Iraqis to unload lorries filled with boxes of cooking oil and bottled water and hoist them over the Al Qaim checkpoint.

Close by, predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels are fighting the forces of the president, Bashar Al Assad, over the town of Albu Kamal, bringing the war to Al Qaim with refugees, Syrian jets and occasional rocket attacks.

Al Qaim, in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, reflects the tricky balancing act Iraq's Shiite leaders face in Syria, whose crisis is testing the Middle East's sectarian divide.

Many Shiite politicians took refuge in Syria during the rule of Saddam Hussein and Mr Al Assad, who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is backed by Iran, while Saudi Arabia supports the rebels.

Iraq's leaders dismiss claims they support Mr Al Assad, but they also fear a nightmare scenario - his downfall brings a hostile Sunni regime to power and emboldens disenchanted Sunnis in Iraq's own fragile sectarian mix.

In Anbar, where tribal ties are strong, discontent over Baghdad's stance on the Syrian crisis is growing. Many have already chosen their side.

"When you have cousins here, it is a matter just of luck whether they are Iraqi or Syrian," said Emad Hammoud, a government worker in Al Qaim. "In Syria, it's a fight of a government against its people, and we are with the people."

Albu Kamal has been overrun by Free Syrian Army rebels and the number of refugees has grown, prompting authorities to lock Al Qaim's crossing. Army brigades now reinforce the frontier, marked by a two-metre-tall metal fence.

Iraqi residents send food, water and medical supplies to pass over the gate at Al Qaim, where up to 300 Syrian refugees arrive daily seeking shelter or supplies from relatives before heading back home.

"This is not help from the state, this is from clerics and from the people," said an Iraqi government official at the crossing, who was not authorised by Baghdad to speak publicly about the refugees.

After Saddam fell in 2003, many members of his outlawed Baath party fled into Syria. Baghdad often criticised Damascus for sheltering Al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents and former Baathists who used Syria as a haven to attack American troops in Iraq.

But Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, who took refuge in Iran and Syria during Saddam's era, has since developed a pragmatic relationship with Mr Al Assad.

Baghdad abstained in an Arab League vote to suspend Syria and resists calls for Arab sanctions, urging reforms instead.

Iraq's foreign minister alluded to fears of what could follow if Assad is overthrown.

"The flow of refugees, the entrenchment of terrorist organisations, the veil of a fundamentalist regime, all this could impact us," Hoshyar Zebari said. "We are trying to take a independent position. Based on our national interests ... things are not black and white."

At tribal meetings across Anbar, talk is now of Syria's crisis and how they can help their Sunni brethren.

Anbar's tribes turned against Al Qaeda to help US forces in 2006. But since the rise of Iraq's Shiite majority, many Sunnis say they are alienated.

Local sheikhs feel sidelined by a prime minister they say wants to consolidate Shiite power.

A fragile government with Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish parties has been mired in crisis as Sunnis accuse Mr Al Maliki of reneging on power-sharing deals.

"Iraq will face a storm," said Sheikh Hatim Salaiman, chieftain of one of Anbar's largest tribes. "In a few months, Syria's crisis will likely end. And what comes next will be difficult for Iraq."

This month, Free Syrian Army rebels fired on Iraqi troops trying to stop four vehicles carrying weapons into Syria. Iraqi troops responded with mortar and cannon fire, an Iraqi military official said.

For now, Al Qaim's mayor says, the border is closed for technical reasons, as local authorities wait to complete more camps with a capacity to deal with 10,000 refugees.

Outside the town, about 2,000 refugees who managed to cross the border before it was closed are housed in white tents. A similar number are staying with relatives or residents.

The violence is growing. Syrian rockets have landed on Al Qaim three times now, the most recently less than a two weeks ago when three Katyushas hit a residential neighbourhood, killing a young Iraqi girl and wounding some of her family.

It was unclear who fired them, the Syrian army or the rebels. But Al Qaim residents know they will not be the last.

"I thought it was one of the Syrian planes we hear overhead. Then we heard the rocket coming at us," said Firas Attallah, the girl's father. "This is the price we pay, just for the help we are sending, for the food and medicine we send."