AMMAN - Fighting flared on Thursday between Syrian Sunni rebels and foreign militias near a main Shi'ite shrine on the southern edge of Damascus, opposition activists said, in an increasingly internationalized conflict deepening Middle East sectarian fault-lines.
Heavy clashes were reported as rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, attacked Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi'ite militia based in the Saida Zainab suburb of Damascus with mortar bombs and automatic weapons, the sources said.
Saida Zainab is named after a blue tiled and mirror decorated shrine in the centre of the district dedicated to the granddaughter of the Prophet. Zainab was also the daughter of Caliph Ali, an especially revered figure in Shi'ite Islam who advocated tolerance.
Any damage to the shrine would inflame religious passions among Shi'ite communities worldwide and further polarize the various Middle East powers involved in the Syrian conflict. Before the revolt against Assad family rule, the shrine drew hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year. Notables from Iran and Iraq are buried in its grounds.
A rebel commander described the attack as a counter-offensive to relieve pressure on the nearby rebel suburbs of al-Thiabiya and al-Boueida, as well as al-Husseiniya Palestinian refugee camp, where rebel brigades are trying to hold off an advance by the Shi'ite militias.