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Iraq border town aims to repay debt to Syrians

By AFP - Feb 21,2012 - Last updated at Feb 21,2012

AL QAIM, Iraq — Residents of Al Qaim, an Iraqi town near the Syrian border, aim to repay a debt to Syrians who provided them with supplies, fighters and weapons when the region was facing US forces in 2005.

"The brothers in Syria stood with the Iraqis ... when US forces surrounded us in 2005, and opened their border and their hearts to us," Sheikh Mohammad Al Karbuli told AFP.

"They delivered us everything we needed — food, medicine, men and weapons ... from several places in Syria," so we must "pay back to them the gratitude and charity in their ordeal", he said.

Abdel Nasser Mohammad Al Qaraghuli, who lives between Al Qaim and the Syrian border, said that "we send them simple medical supplies now, and collect financial contributions from the wealthy people and we send ]the contributions] to them".

Al Qaim, a town of about 137,000 people, is located in Anbar province some 340 kilometres west of Baghdad.

There are families and tribes, including major ones such as Al Rawiyin, Al Aniyin, Al Karabla, Albu Mahal, and Al Salman, in the area that have ties by blood and marriage to those in Syria.

Tribal leaders say that relationships with Syrians extend to the towns of Deir Ezzor, Homs and Idlib.

"I sent $2,000 so far to help injured people in Syria," tribal elder Abu Mujahid Al Luhaibi said, adding that "we send money to the families that we know through intermediaries".

Karbuli said that "what is happening for the Syrian people now in Homs, Damascus, Deir Ezzor and other cities is an insult to dignity".

"The tribal leaders in Anbar especially must ... help our brothers in Syria," he said.

Since March last year, Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has carried out a bloody crackdown on an uprising against his rule in which more than 6,000 people have been killed, according to a toll by rights activists.

While there are still regular civilian protests that turn deadly in Syria, the focus has shifted to armed conflict with regime forces.

Syria shares a roughly 600-kilometre border with Iraq, more than half of it with the Sunni-majority Anbar province, which was once an insurgent stronghold.

Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians, and of his opponents, are Sunni Muslims.

Iraq's interior minister said in an interview with AFP that jihadists are moving from Iraq to Syria and arms are also being smuggled across the border to opponents of Assad's regime.

A statement released on Saturday by the Iraqi premier's office, meanwhile, said that Iraq is taking measures to secure its border with Syria against weapons smuggling and the unauthorised movement of people.

A group of people in Al Qaim this month announced the formation of the "Army of Free Iraqis" to provide assistance in Syria.

The group said in a statement that its "work will focus on controlling the border and searching with volunteers for any strange or suspicious movements by the Iraqi government towards assisting the Syrian government".

The group's leader, Abu Yasser, told AFP that "we will go immediately to fight in Syria if it is shown that the Iraqi government sends fighters to fight with the regime there".

Abu Yasser, whose face was masked, travelled in a three-vehicle convoy with 12 men armed with automatic weapons.

Al Qaim is also preparing for the possibility of receiving Syrian refugees.

Bilal Al Ani, the head of a local rights group, said that if Syrian refugees came to Al Qaim, "we will receive them and provide them with all the necessary things and all that they want".

Karbuli stressed that "if the government objects to opening camps, our houses are open to them".

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