BAGHDAD // Attackers killed more than 50 Iraqi and Syrian soldiers in an ambush on Iraqi soil yesterday, stoking fears that the fighting in Syria could spill over the 600-kilometre border and provoke sectarian violence in Iraq.
A total of 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqis died when their convoy of 32 vehicles was attacked by gunmen using homemade bombs, mortars and heavy artillery as they drove towards a border crossing with Syria in Iraq's western Anbar province.
The Syrian soldiers, who numbered 65 in total, had fled into Iraq on March 2, according to a security official in Anbar.
They had escaped through the border town of Yaaroubia - which straddles the Iraq-Syria border near the northern city of Mosul - after heavy fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces on the Syrian side.
Although there has long been fighting in Syria in the areas close to the Iraqi border, particularly in the Syrian town of Abu Kamal, this is the clearest realisation yet of a pervasive nightmare among Iraqis that the Syrian fighting will spread to their fragile country and even reignite their civil war.
Iraq's government will resist any attempts to spread the conflict in Syria to Iraq, the prime minister's spokesman said yesterday. "This confirms our fears of the attempt of some to move the conflict to Iraq, but we will face these attempts by all sides with all of our power," Ali Mussawi, Nouri Al Maliki's spokesman said.
"Of course, it's very disturbing, what's happening in Syria," said Falah Al Naqib, a parliamentarian from the Sunni-dominated province of Salahaddin. "We are worried that Syria will go into sectarian war against the Alawites and that Al Qaeda will take over some areas - that would affect other areas in Iraq."
The attackers have not been formally identified although the security official said that Iraq's Al Qaeda affiliate, which is considered by US officials to have links with militant Syrian rebel groups, was likely behind the ambush.
Iraqi media reported that several of the soldiers had received treatment for injuries in Mosul, but the security official in Anbar said that according to protocol, they were being transferred back into Syria, via the Al Waleed border crossing. They were attacked, en route, in the Akashat area.
For more than two years, Iraqis have watched the growing rebellion in Syria with anxiety, seeing in its western neighbour a nation increasingly divided along ethno-sectarian battle lines, as their own country was in 2005-2007, when the country was wracked by a bloody civil war.
The Alawite sect of Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, is associated by many with the Shiite confession, while the rebels are mainly Sunni, but Kurds and Christians and other minorities are also caught up in the struggles - just as in Iraq.
And along large parts of the border, tribes and families have historically moved freely. Many who are nominally Iraqi citizens feel intensely sympathetic to the struggle of their relatives against Mr Al Assad.
As the conflict has escalated, there have been demonstrations in support of the rebel fighters in Sunni areas, prompting fears that Iraqi Sunnis may support militants in Syria, or even export the rebellion to Iraq.
Already, in Sunni provinces, there are weekly anti-government demonstrations of tens of thousands of people, calling sometimes for constitutional reform, sometimes for the fall of the Shiite-led government, and sometimes for the formation of a Sunni state.
"I don't believe there's coordination [between the protesters] with the organisations in Syria," said Mr Naqib, the parliamentarian, but added: "maybe inspiration, a little bit."