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Syrian war becomes religious conflict

| Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 9:54 p.m.

Hezbollah fighters joined Syrian forces in battling rebels in a Damascus suburb — home to a revered Shiite Muslim shrine — in a push to secure the area around the ornate, golden-domed mosque.

Protection of the Sayida Zeinab shrine has become a rallying cry for Shiite fighters backing President Bashar Assad, raising the stakes in a conflict that is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines.

Fighting south of the capital is part of a wider military offensive by Assad's forces to recapture suburbs held by rebels and areas in the country's strategic heartland. Activists said violent clashes, coupled with heavy artillery bombardment of southern suburbs, reverberated in Damascus.

Syria's war is increasingly pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria's neighbors.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, warned of an impending humanitarian disaster. It said regime forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, were besieging the area. It said tens of thousands of civilians are under heavy bombardment.

“Civilians in this area live in grim fear and anxiety, with no electricity and no way to escape from the anticipated large-scale massacre that often follows these types of regime attacks,” a statement issued by the group said.

The international community has been largely unable to end Syria's civil war, now in its third year, which has killed 93,000 people, and likely many more, according to the United Nations.

Assad draws his support largely from Syria's minorities, including fellow Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as well as Christians and Shiites. He is backed by Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group based in neighboring Lebanon. Most rebels are Sunni, as are their patrons Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. They have been joined by thousands of Sunni foreign fighters from the Muslim world.

The area surrounding the Sayida Zeinab suburb, about 10 miles south of Damascus, has seen fighting before. But the regime forces and Hezbollah fighters launched an intensified assault there on Monday, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The assault appears aimed at decisively pushing rebels back and securing the suburb, home to the shrine of Sayida Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter. Before the war, the shrine attracted tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world. Last year, rebels kidnapped Iranian pilgrims visiting the area, accusing them of being spies. The pilgrims were later released.

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