BASRA, Iraq (AP) — Hundreds of Iraqis attended the Friday funeral in a southern city of two Shiite fighters killed in Syria. Several such funerals have been held in recent months, the latest sign that the conflict has taken on a sectarian regional dimension.
Mourners in the oil-rich city of Basra carried the coffin of Mohammed Aboud, whom they say was killed by sniper fire near the shrine of Sayida Zeinab outside the Syrian capital Damascus five days before.
They said Aboud went to Iran two months ago before flying to Syria in order to join a group of fighters protecting that country's Shiite shrines against attacks launched by the rebel Free Syrian Army.
For months Iraqi Shiite fighters have trickled into Syria, where mostly Sunni rebels are fighting a regime dominated by a Shiite offshoot sect. Their relatives say the fighters are drawn by a sense of religious duty to protect the Sayida Zeinab shrine, which marks what is believed to be the grave of the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Iraq remains officially neutral in the Syrian conflict.
There have been regular clashes in the area of the shrine, but it is impossible to verify what the Shiite fighters are actually doing. The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah has also recently said that supporters of the Shiite militant group are fighting in Syria and said Shiites have "a duty to protect the Sayida Zeinab shrine."
Six men wearing military camouflage carried Aboud's coffin, painted in the colors of the Iraqi flag. "Sigh in grief, Zeinab," was written on its front.
The coffin of the other slain fighter, Hassan Ali, was rushed to Baghdad at the start of the funeral. Relatives said both bodies were transported from Syria via Iran before being returned to Iraq.
Aboud's uncle Ali Abbas said that the family received a phone call from a Shiite fighter in Syria informing that his nephew was killed during clashes near the shrine.
"We are proud of our martyr who was sacrificed his life while defending the religion, holy shrines and righteousness," Abbas said.
Some of the mourners chanted slogans against the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army rebel group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which in the past year has become the most effective fighting force within the opposition trying to topple Assad.
Relatives said that the two bodies were received at the Shalamja border crossing with Iran. Earlier this month, another body for killed Iraq Shiite fighter was also brought through Iran.
Tehran's alleged role in repatriating bodies strengthens suggestions that it is coordinating the movement of foreign fighters to aid its embattled ally, Syria.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed reporting.