By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi'ite militias have begun openly acknowledging they are fighting in Syria, in what they see as a worthy battle against rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, especially his hardline Sunni opponents.
By recognizing their role in Syria's war, Iraqi Shi'ite fighters may gain recruitment momentum to help Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a war that is splitting the region along sectarian lines.
The war has already pulled in Sunni Islamists from outside Syria to join rebel ranks. Syria, for its part, has begun sending militias loyal to Assad for training at a base in Shi'ite Iran, Assad's key ally, fighters say.
In recent months, Iraqi Shi'ite militants have said volunteers are crossing into Syria to fight, often alongside Assad's troops, or to protect the Sayyida Zeinab shrine on the outskirts of Damascus, a particularly holy place for Shi'ites.
But militia leaders, who have mostly been inactive since U.S. troops left Iraq a year ago, have been reluctant to openly acknowledge fighting in Syria, possibly because influential Shi'ite clergy opposed Iraqis joining the battle.
Some militants have said they were fighting in Syria in response to their religious leader, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but without any official sanction from Tehran, Baghdad or from their militia leadership.
Now though, Iraq's main Shi'ite militias, Asaib al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah, which waged war on U.S. troops, and former fighters from anti-U.S. Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, have started to acknowledge their role in Syria and that their fighters have been killed there, militants say.
"Now Shi'ites have the feeling the battle in Syria is more legitimate and it does not matter if it is to protect Shi'ite shrines there or fight alongside Assad's soldiers," Abu Mujahid, a militant leader, told Reuters.
That shift have been motivated partly by the increasingly sectarian nature of Syria's conflict as Sunni rebels and Islamist fighters targeted holy Shi'ite sites.
Websites linked to Asaib al-Haq, the Mehdi Army and the Abu al-Fadhil al-Abbas Brigade, a militia unit of Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese Shi'ite fighters which operates in Syria, show portraits of slain Iraqi militants wearing military uniform and carrying sniper rifles.
A caption on one says he was killed in Syria while defending the Sayyida Zeinab shrine in the south of the Syrian capital Damascus. Zeinab is the daughter of Imam Ali, the most important and symbolic figure for Shi'ite Muslims after the Prophet Mohammad.
On one website, next to a portrait of a fighter killed in Syria, a condolence note reads: "The Islamic Resistance, Asaib al-Haq, Iraqi affiliate, mourns its martyr ... killed while performing his legitimate duty."
In Kadhimiya, a Shi'ite district of Baghdad, two adjacent black banners commemorate the death of two fighters. The banners say one of the men belonged to Asaib al-Haq and the other to Kata'ib and they were killed "in the line of the holy legitimate duty" in Syria.
An Asaib spokesman, Adnan Fiyhan, denied the group had any link to the militant mentioned. That position may reflect how sensitive the issue is for Asaib and Baghdad's Shi'ite-led government. Asaib has officially disbanded, leaving its leaders free to move into politics.
Syria's upheaval is a political nightmare for Iraq's Shi'ite leaders who believe a messy fall of Assad would fragment Syria along sectarian lines and bring to power a hostile, hardline Sunni Muslim regime that could stir up Iraq's own combustible Sunni-Shi'ite mix.
Iraq says it has a policy of non-interference in Syria and refuses to endorse Western and Arab League demands for the removal of Iran's ally Assad.
The Syrian conflict is also invigorating Sunni Islamists tied to al Qaeda in Iraq, which have stepped up their campaign of attacks on Shi'ite religious targets in an attempt to trigger a broader sectarian confrontation.
Security forces say al Qaeda's local wing is gaining ground in the vast western desert of Anbar province bordering Syria, where many families share strong tribal ties across the remote frontier.
(Editing by Patrick Markey and Robin Pomeroy)