BEIRUT — Iraq asserted Thursday that al-Qaida insurgents are streaming out of the country to carry out attacks in Syria, an ominous development as the Syrian conflict enflames an already hostile region.
Extremists have been making inroads as the 16-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad grinds on, bringing a dangerous new element to the forces fighting to topple the regime.
The militants are taking advantage of the chaos and the violence gripping Syria, which the head of the country's U.N. observer mission said Thursday had reached "unprecedented levels."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said authorities are worried that extremists could gain another foothold in Syria, posing a new threat to the stability of the entire region.
"We have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaida's terrorist network have gone to Syria," he told reporters in Baghdad. Zebari did not elaborate or provide details but said his main concern is "extremist, terrorist groups taking root in neighboring countries."
It's a turnaround from the height of the Iraqi war six years ago, when weapons and fighters would cross from Syria to aid fellow Sunnis in Iraq. Zebari said Baghdad has for years warned Damascus about al-Qaida traffic between Iraq and Syria.
In February, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri called on Muslims from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011 with mass protests inspired by the Arab Spring, then grew into a bloody insurgency as the opposition took up arms to fight a fierce government crackdown.
Rebel fighters have launched increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several suicide bombings that bear the hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq indicate extremists are joining the fray.
Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the revolt began. Syria severely restricts the media in the country, making it difficult to gain a credible account of events on the ground.
An al-Qaida-inspired group, the Al-Nusra front, has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks across Syria. On Tuesday, the SITE monitoring group, which tracks militant chatter on the Internet, said the Al-Nusra Front released statements on extremist websites in late June saying the string of attacks were to avenge the killings of Syrians by the government.
Opposition activists and the rebel Free Syrian Army deny having any links to terrorism and say they do not have the desire or the capabilities to carry out massive suicide bombings and other al-Qaida-style attacks. But dozens of rebel groups are operating in Syria with little or no coordination between them.
Military defections also have been on the rise.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other opposition websites said Thursday that Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass – a member of the elite Republican Guards and a son of a former defense minister – reportedly had defected and fled to Turkey. If confirmed, the defection would be a major blow to Assad.
Tlass is a top Sunni general in a regime made up mostly of members of Assad's Alawite sect and was once a close confidant of the president's.
The Observatory quoted "multiple sources" in Syria as saying that Tlass had left Syria and was expected to formally announce his defection. Turkey did not immediately confirm the reports.
The violence already has drawn in Syria's neighbors.
The bodies of two Turkish pilots were recovered from the seabed Thursday after U.S. ocean explorer Robert Ballard, best known for discovering the wreck of the Titanic, helped locate them nearly two weeks after their jet was shot down by Syria.
A Turkish official said Ballard, aboard his deep-sea exploration vessel R/V Nautilus, found the bodies Wednesday nearly 10 miles (16 kilometers) off the Syrian coast after the Turkish navy had pinpointed the area. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The June 22 incident fueled tensions between the two neighbors and Turkey quickly deployed anti-aircraft missiles on the border.
The head of the country's U.N. observer mission said the violence in Syria has reached unprecedented levels, insisting a cease-fire is needed in order for his teams to resume their work.
About 300 U.N. monitors were sent to Syria to provide an unbiased look at the violence as part of a peace plan put forward by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, but a truce has failed to take hold and the observers have been confined to their hotels since June 15 because of the bloodshed.
"The escalation of violence, allow me to say, to an unprecedented level, obstructed our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue," Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood told reporters in the Syrian capital Damascus.
He urged both sides of the conflict to have the "moral courage to break out of the cycle of violence" and engage in dialogue.
"The longer the violence goes on, with more civilians killed or trapped in the line of fire, the more difficult it will become to have a peaceful transition," he said.
Activists reported at least 26 people killed across Syria Thursday in clashes between troops and rebels and government shelling on suburbs of the capital Damascus, the central Homs region and rebel-held areas in northern and southern Syria.
More than 200,000 Syrians have so far fled the country overland, seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The president of Cyprus, Dimitris Christofias, said the island nation has drawn up contingency plans to receive a possible influx of evacuees from Syria if necessary.
Cyprus is only 65 miles (105 kilometers) west of Syria.
Russia, a main ally of the Syrian regime, said it was not considering offering asylum to Assad. The statement came after respected Russian daily newspaper Kommersant quoted diplomatic sources on Wednesday as saying that Western nations are pushing Moscow to do so.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia has no such plans, and he insisted such an invitation would not make sense because "Syrians themselves need to find common ground."
Also Thursday, the secret-spilling group Wikileaks said it was in the process of publishing material from 2.4 million Syrian emails – many of which it said came from official government accounts.
WikiLeaks' Sarah Harrison told journalists in London that the emails reveal interactions between the Syrian government and Western companies, although she declined to go into much further detail.
Harrison quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as saying that "the material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria's external opponents."
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, John Heilprin in Geneva, Raphael Satter in London, Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.