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Refuge in Iraq ends with deaths of 48 Syrian troops

| Monday, March 4, 2013, 6:57 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Dozens of Syrian soldiers who had crossed into Iraq for refuge were ambushed on Monday 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 raises questions about Baghdad's apparent willingness to quietly aid the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The well-coordinated attack, which Iraqi officials blamed on al-Qaida's Iraq arm, 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 also were killed. The Syrians had been disarmed and included some who were wounded, he said.

He said the soldiers had been allowed into Iraq on humanitarian grounds and insisted that Baghdad was not picking sides in the Syrian conflict.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry said 10 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 will 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.

He and another Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said it was unlikely that Syrian rebels had managed to cross into Iraq to carry out the attack.

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