BAGHDAD – Baghdad resident Ali Nagy has been receiving a steady stream of visitors since he returned from Syria earlier in April. Many believed him dead.
Nagy, 33, is telling family and friends of the 20 days he spent in Syria, hoping they learn from his ordeal.
"I sold mobile telephone recharge cards in ... eastern Baghdad for two years," he told Mawtani. "Some of my not-so-good friends introduced me to a Hizbullah militia member."
"[He] told me about Syria, efforts by armed groups to destroy the sacred shrines and individuals ... who returned [from Syria] with enough money to buy their own houses," Nagy said. "He told me that I ... could be an asset ... in protecting the [shrine of] Sayyida Zainab."
The man offered him $5,000 to go to Syria, Nagy said. He also offered Nagy a salary four times higher than his present one and a chance for employment upon his return, Nagy said.
"Two days later, he gave me $2,000 and ... said that my wife would get the rest of the money when I arrived in Syria," Nagy said. She never did.
'We never saw, nor reached, the shrines'
Nagy flew to an airport near Tehran before travelling on to Damascus where he and some other men were taken to a Syrian army camp.
"The next day, they took us to another camp, where dozens of Iraqis and Lebanese were being trained by Syrian and Iranian [instructors]," Nagy said.
After six days of weapons training and religious lectures, the recruits went to Homs.
Upon their arrival, the Syrians took the recruits to a run-down, exhausted unit and told them, "This is your place, now help your brothers," he said.
"We were shocked," he said. "We knew we had been deceived."
Over three days, Nagy said he heard stories of young men killed in combat without ever seeing the venerated Shia shrines.
Nagy confronted a Syrian army commander, who replied, "All the land of Syria is sacred".
He and nine others resolved to go home.
Escape from Syria
Two days later, Nagy and three others seized a chance to escape, walking several kilometres and crossing into Iraq.
"I am now ready to bear whatever the law dictates, because the law does not protect the foolhardy," he said. "But I will not forfeit my right to prosecute the one who cheated and misled me."
"My trip to defend the sacred shrines in Syria was a lie," he said. "I didn't even come close."
Militias target impoverished youth
Nagy's tale sounds familiar, Iraqi Interior Ministry Col. Nouri al-Maksousi said.
Investigations revealed that many Iraqi casualties in Syria had been killed on battlefields far from the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Sukainah, al-Maksousi said, even though those Iraqis had expected to defend the shrines.
Al-Maksousi accused Iran-backed militias of "deceiving and misinforming" low-income Iraqi men into dying on a pretext.
Such deception is "despicable," said Baghdad cleric Sheikh Jamal Hussein al-Wakeel.
"We went there a few days ago and found there was no threat – there are sufficient forces there to protect [the shrines]," he said.
"We don't want to see this scene being repeated," he said. "There is no religious calling imploring them to go there."