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The 42-year-old militant, who agreed to be identified only by the nickname of Abu Zainab because the Mahdi Army is officially no longer supposed to be engaged in military activities, said the fighters are being supported by Iran and consider the defense of the holy sites to be a religious duty. “They are happy to do this,” he said.

Iran has been providing logistical support and small arms to volunteer fighters guarding the shrine, the militant said.

Tehran has long denied supporting violence in Iraq, although it has seen its influence rise since American troops withdrew in December.

Shrines and militiamen

It is extremely difficult to verify the Iraqis’ claims independently.

Some officials downplayed the suggestion that Iraqi militia members had been formally sent to take up arms in Syria in recent months, though they suggested that Iraqi Shiite militants who had settled near the Zainab shrine before the Syrian uprising have stayed to defend the site.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government is concerned that Shiite holy sites in Syria could be targeted.

“The targeting of these shrines will lead to the eruption of a sectarian volcano in the region. This will set off a sectarian fire that nobody will be able to put out. Certainly, we have great fears about this,” he said.

Iraqi officials acknowledge that well-armed Shiite militiamen remain in Iraq, despite efforts to disarm them or integrate them into state security forces.

A senior Iraqi security official estimated there are 2,000 to 3,000 well-trained militiamen in Iraq and said they have access to hidden caches of heavy weapons.

The official, who refused to allow his name to be used because he is not authorized to release the information, said the potential targeting of Shiite shrines in Syria risks provoking not just militias, but “the whole Shiite community.”

Even as concerns grow that Iraqi Shiites could be drawn into Syria’s civil war, Sunni fighters aligned with al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq are believed to be moving back and forth across the Syrian border to help Sunni rebels overthrow Mr. Assad, according to senior Iraqi security officials.

The group also is setting up training camps for insurgents in Iraq’s western deserts, officials say.

“It is very difficult to imagine a scenario could emerge in the long term where you have this continued stalemate [in Syria] and the various factions in Iraq don’t get involved,” said Aram Nerguizian, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “Most observers, myself included, are still trying to map out who the players are.”

Fear for the fate of Syrian Shiites and the Zainab shrine in particular are palpable among Iraq’s Shiite faithful.

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