Iraq's foreign minister said Thursday that Al Qaeda fighters were flowing from Iraq into Syria to carry out "terrorist attacks," a phenomenon that Western governments and Middle East analysts have increasingly feared in the chaos and violence now raging in Syria.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters in Baghdad that Iraq had "solid evidence" that members of the extremist group, who previously had streamed from Syria into Iraq to aid its insurgency, were moving in the opposite direction.
"Our main concern, to be honest with you, is about the spillover -- about extremist, terrorist groups taking root in neighboring countries," Zebari was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Syrian President Bashar Assad often casts the uprising as the work of Islamic terrorists funded from abroad. Rebels have rejected the term and tried to distance themselves from extremist groups, accusing the government of orchestrating "terrorist" bombings in Damascus to gin up alarm about Islamic extremism and undermine their fight for greater freedoms and democracy.
The Syrian National Council and other opposition groups announced earlier this year that they "are all united in rejecting the message of Al Qaeda, as it only serves the regime’s propaganda."
But U.S. and British officials say some suicide bombings and other attacks in the country point to the presence of Al Qaeda, which has called for its followers to head to Syria and help overthrow Assad. Some Middle East analysts say the sectarian overtones of the Syrian conflict are catnip for the extremist group, which sees the carnage as a battle against oppressed Sunni Muslims.
"They’re attracted like a moth to a flame," Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Los Angeles Times in May. "It does seem that there are some there, and it does seem to be growing."
Fears that the violence might spread beyond Syria's borders have grown as Turkey spars with the Assad regime over its recent attack on a Turkish air force jet. Worries about Al Qaeda jumping into the fray have only aggravated the anxiety over how the Syrian conflict could spread, as the Iraqi minister warned.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari speaks to media in Baghdad on Thursday. Credit: Mohammed Jalil / European Pressphoto Agency