Attack on Syrian troops inside Iraq leaves 48 dead
Dozens of Syrian soldiers who had crossed into Iraq for refuge were ambushed with bombs, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades in an attack that killed 48 of them and heightened concerns that the country could be drawn into Syria's civil war.
The fact that the soldiers were on Iraqi soil at all raises questions about Baghdad's apparent willingness to quietly aid the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The well-coordinated attack, which Iraqi officials blamed on al-Qa'ida's Iraq arm, also suggests possible coordination between the militant group and its ideological allies in Syria who rank among the rebels' most potent fighters.
Iraqi officials said the Syrians had sought refuge through the Rabiya border crossing in northern Iraq during recent clashes with rebels and were being escorted back home through a different crossing farther south when the ambush occurred. Their convoy was struck near Akashat, not far from the Syrian border.
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq's prime minister, provided the death toll and said nine Iraqi soldiers were also killed. The Syrians had been disarmed and included some who were wounded.
He said the soldiers had been allowed into Iraq only on humanitarian grounds and insisted that Baghdad was not picking sides in Syria's conflict.
"We do not want more soldiers to cross our borders and we do not want to be part of the problem," Mr al-Moussawi said. "We do not support any group against the other in Syria."
The Iraqi defence ministry said 10 additional Syrians were wounded in the assault.
In a statement, it warned all parties in the Syrian war against bringing the fight into Iraq, saying its response would be "firm and tough".
Iraqi officials who provided details of the attack described a carefully orchestrated assault on the Syrians' convoy, with a senior military intelligence official saying the attackers appeared to have been tipped off ahead of time.
He and another Iraqi official said it was unlikely that Syrian rebels had managed to cross into Iraq to carry out the attack.
Meanwhile, in Syria, opposition fighters captured the north-eastern city of Raqqa yesterday and crowds toppled a statue of Assad's father.
The fall of Raqqa on the Euphrates River would be a significant development in the two-year-old revolt against Assad.
The rebels do not claim to hold any other provincial capitals.
Rebel fighters said loyalist forces were still dug in at the provincial airport 60km from Raqqa and they remained a threat.
A resident said that a Syrian military intelligence compound in the town was not in rebel hands but was surrounded by anti-Assad fighters.