Baghdad: Al Qaeda`s Iraq branch on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the deaths of 51 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqis killed in a well-planned assault in western Iraq last week, intensifying concerns that the terror group is coordinating with Islamist rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Iraqi authorities say fighters and weapons are moving increasingly more freely across the long and porous desert border between the two countries as Syrian rebels try to consolidate control on their side of the frontier.
The issue also plays into the conflict between Iraq`s Shiite-led government and Sunni insurgents, particularly al Qaeda.
Iraq officially has not taken sides in the Syria civil war, though Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned in an interview with The Associated Press this month that a victory for rebels would create a new extremist haven and spark sectarian wars in his own country and in Lebanon.
The Syrian troops killed on Iraqi soil March 4 had sought refuge in northern Iraq during recent clashes that ended with the rebels taking over the Rabiya border crossing along Iraq`s northern province of Ninevah. The troops were being escorted back to Syria through another border crossing further south when they were ambushed.
It was the first time Syrian soldiers were known to be in Iraq since Syria`s civil war began.
Iraqi officials say they allowed the Syrians in on humanitarian grounds.
In a statement posted on militant websites, the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda`s wing in Iraq, said its fighters were monitoring the movements of the soldiers as Iraqi authorities worked to transfer them secretly back across the border.
The attack started with militants detonating explosive charges on military escort vehicles assigned to protect trucks carrying the Syrian soldiers, the group said.
After that, "the fighters launched an attack from two directions using light- and medium-range weapons as well as rocket-propelled grenades," said al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Within less than half an hour, the whole convoy... Was annihilated," the group said.
The account of the attack matches descriptions that Iraqi officials provided in the immediate aftermath of the assault.
Iraqi officials have launched a manhunt for the attackers, but no arrests have been made.