BAGHDAD -- For some Iraqi refugees living in Syria, it feels like a sequel to a nightmare.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria during the brutal sectarian war that followed the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Syria beckoned as a haven of religious tolerance, especially for many Shiite Muslims and Christians targeted by Sunni extremists in Iraq.
Now many Iraqis are returning, home fearing an ugly replay in Syria where, as in Iraq, they worry that the fall of a secular autocrat, Bashar Assad, may give rise to a Sunni Islamist wave of religious intolerance.
This time, they say, it is the Syrian rebels — mostly from that nation’s Sunni Muslim majority — who are stoking a sectarian agenda.
“There are signs of religious extremism, and that extremism means they will be against the Shiites,” said Salim Mohammed Alwan, who returned to Baghdad on Saturday after living in Syria since 2007.
Alwan, 45, a restaurant worker, said his religious identity only became an issue with the emergence of the Sunni-led uprising against Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“No one used to ask me about my sect until this crisis began,” Alwan said upon arriving in Baghdad. “Now we are asked about it almost every day.”
Syrian rebels say their agenda is not religious or sectarian, but both sides in the conflict have been accused of sectarian-tinged killings. Many Syrian insurgents express open hostility against Shiites and Alawites, as well as against Shiite-led Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite movement.
Iraq, too, has a Shiite-led government. That may feed into Syrian insurgents' hostility against some Iraqi refugees living in Syria.
The Iraqi government has organized an airlift of Iraqis trapped in strife-torn Syria.
It is a commentary on how much the situation in Syria has disintegrated that Iraq, itself still plagued by sectarian bombings and divisions, could be viewed as a haven.
The intense fighting this week in Damascus has made it difficult for some Iraqis to reach the airport and board the flights provided by the Baghdad government. Leaving by land is a perilous undertaking. Recent battles between insurgents and Syrian government troops along the two nations’ lengthy border have only complicated matters.
This week Syrian rebels seized several border crossings with Iraq, including the busy post at Abu Kamal, across from Qaim on the Iraqi side. On Saturday news agencies quoted Iraqi officials saying Syrian insurgents had also raised their flag above the northern Rabiyah crossing.
The United Nations has raised alarms about the plight of Iraqi refugees in Syria.
Among those arriving in Baghdad on Saturday from Syria were Iraqi Shiites who lived in the Damascus suburb of Seida Zeinab, named after a Shiite shrine in the community. Many Shiites from Iraq had settled there.
“Thousands of refugees, mainly Iraqi, living in the Damascus suburb of Seida Zeinab have fled their homes due to violence and targeted threats in recent days,” the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Friday.
All seven members of an Iraqi family were found dead recently in their apartment in Damascus, the U.N. said. Three other refugees were killed by gunfire, it said. And two Iraqi journalists were killed in Damascus this month in circumstances that remain unclear.
Alwan said that leaflets threatening Shiite Iraqis were circulating in Syria.
“We heard that some Iraqis were killed or kidnapped,” said an Iraqi refugee arriving in Baghdad on Saturday who gave her name as Um Mustafa, 51, a mother of four.
She said she had fled Iraq nine years ago after her husband was killed in Baghdad’s Saiydiya district, one of many neighborhoods that became deadly sectarian battlegrounds. She left Iraq, she said, in a bid to keep her three sons alive. Arriving back in her homeland, she declared: “Thank God for the safety of my family. We are back in Iraq after leaving everything behind us.”
-- A special correspondent in Baghdad. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Damascus contributed to this report.
Photo: Iraqi refugees who fled Syria carry their belongins upon arriving in Baghdad on Saturday. Credit: Ali Abbas / EPA