Iraqis call for U.S. military aid after Nusra-linked assault on ‘innocent Syrians’

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 5, 2013 

— Top Iraqi officials called Tuesday for the United States to step up its promised delivery of major arms after an ambush well inside Iraq by suspected Islamist militants that left more than 50 Syrians and a dozen Iraqi troops dead.

The Iraqi government was clearly rattled by Monday’s incident, which seemed to bear out its worst fears that Syria’s civil war would spill into the country.

Two top Iraqi officials said the attackers were almost certainly members of al Qaida in Iraq or the Nusra Front, one of the most effective groups fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In December, the State Department added the front, known in Arabic as Jabhat al Nusra, to its list of international terrorist organizations, saying it was merely an alias for al Qaida in Iraq. Nusra has been at the forefront of recent rebel gains in Syria.

Iraqi officials said it was still unknown whether the attackers had crossed from Syria into Iraq to launch the attack or were already in the country. The area where the attack took place, Anbar province, was a stronghold of al Qaida in Iraq for much of the time that U.S. troops were based in the country.

The assailants used land mines and light arms to attack an Iraqi military convoy that was escorting Syrian civilians and soldiers, who’d fled to Iraq over the weekend when Nusra fighters seized control of a border crossing. The officials said the assailants had tracked the convoy’s movements, possibly by obtaining military intelligence.

Iraq is treating the incident as a cold-blooded assault on innocent Syrians who’d fled to Iraq for safety.

“It was a massacre of, I would say, innocent Syrians . . . a terrible breach of security,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told McClatchy.

Ali Mousawi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, said the United States should immediately give priority to arming Iraq with weapons that the country already had requested so that it could fend off any future incidents.

“We need equipment as fast it was delivered to Turkey,” Mousawi said, referring to the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries by the United States and several NATO allies after Syrian missiles landed in Turkish territory.

“They managed to install the Patriot systems within two weeks. We need something like that,” he told McClatchy.

The U.S. Embassy had no immediate comment, but a State Department official in Washington, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the subject, said he was unaware of any specific request by Iraq for additional border-security measures.

There was an undertone of bitterness in Zebari’s and Mousawi’s remarks as they spoke of a sluggish response from the Obama administration to repeated requests for faster deliveries of U.S.-supplied arms. Iraq has ordered two squadrons of F-16 combat aircraft and is reported to have discussed the possible purchases of Apache helicopters as well as other equipment.

Mousawi said Iraq had asked Washington for treatment as a “special case, an extraordinary case,” because unlike other U.S. allies, it wasn’t expanding an arsenal but attempting to acquire its first advanced weapons systems since the U.S.-led invasion 10 years ago had toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

“We want to be treated in a special way, because we do not have the weapons now. But nothing happened,” he said.

Maliki had tried many times to persuade the U.S. administration, he added. “They know our situation. Nothing has been done.”

Zebari made the same point in a separate interview.

“We need equipment. We need electronic surveillance. We need an air force,” Zebari said. “We need a border control system. Definitely. We don’t have it. We have only the concrete blocks that the Americans left for us, lined up along the borders.”

Iraq, he said, “doesn’t have a single jet. It has a few transport helicopters, for transport purposes, not as gunships.”

The prelude to the incident was the capture by Nusra of a border crossing that links Syria’s Hasaka province with Iraq’s Nineveh province. Troops and civilian employees manning the Syrian border post fled under fire to the Iraqi post about 500 yards away, Mousawi said. They arrived unarmed, he said.

Some of those fleeing were wounded and were given first aid. After a few days they were loaded into military vehicles to be driven to a border crossing at Walid, some 180 miles to the south.

Zebari said the Syrians had asked to be repatriated but that the Iraqi government wouldn’t turn them over to Nusra, as it would mean their immediate slaughter.

They traveled through desert on the only road that parallels the border, and “it looks like those people, the fighters, got some information that they were going to traverse this route.”

They’d laid land mines on the road and detonated them about noon Monday as the convoy passed over them, and then attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, Zebari said. He said none of the Syrian victims was armed.

The incident occurred near the town of Akashat, near some major phosphate mines, Zebari said. Akashat is about 15 miles inside Iraq but the ambush may have occurred still farther inside the country.

Mousawi pointed out that Arab tribes straddle the Iraqi-Syrian border, as do insurgent groups, and that those links may have facilitated what appears to be a serious intelligence breach. “They definitely got some information” in advance, he said.

Zebari and Mousawi acknowledged that this was the most advanced operation that insurgents have carried out in Iraq in years.

“They have become more and more sophisticated,” Zebari said, “from the war here and from the experience with other wars. This was really well-planned . . . well-informed and let us say with more destructive power.”

Hannah Allam in Washington and special correspondent Paul Raymond in Istanbul contributed to this article.

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