BAGHDAD, Iraq — More than 40 Syrian soldiers who had sought temporary safety in Iraq from rebel fighters along the border were killed Monday in an attack by unidentified gunmen as the Iraqi military was transporting the soldiers back to Syria in a bus convoy, the government said. At least seven Iraqis were also reported killed in the attack, which appeared to be the most serious spillover of violence into Iraq since the Syrian conflict began two years ago.
Ali al-Musawi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accused “armed groups from the Iraqi and Syrian side” of coordinating the attack, which he described as an ambush. He said Iraq would deploy more security forces on the border. Middle East experts said such a move raised the risk that the Iraqis could become more directly enmeshed in the Syrian conflict, underscoring how it threatens to destabilize a wider swath of the region.
“We will not allow any terrorist to enter the Iraqi lands,” al-Musawi said in a telephone interview. He said the ambush was partly the consequence of “sectarian speeches that encourage people to hate each other.”
Al-Musawi did not specify which armed groups he was alluding to, but it was clear that he meant Sunni militant extremists affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq. These groups have become increasingly emboldened by popular Sunni resentment against al-Maliki, a Shiite who is accused by critics of trying to marginalize Iraq’s Sunni population since the U.S. occupation of Iraq ended in 2011.
The Al Nusra Front, a Sunni insurgent force in Syria that has become known for its audacious attacks on government targets, has links with al-Qaida in Iraq, and U.S. officials have blacklisted it as a terrorist organization. But many Iraqi Sunnis sympathize with the Syrian insurgents, who are overwhelmingly Sunni and whose clan relations span national boundaries.
“A number of us have been saying that Iraq is the one most affected by the meltdown in Syria,” said Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and curator of the Syria Comment blog, which has chronicled the Syrian conflict.
“In that region, the tribes go right across the Syrian border, and most of the people are related by blood,” he said. “They’re in one common struggle.”
Al-Maliki has not expressed outright support for President Bashar Assad of Syria, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.