Iraq bolsters security on Syrian border amid growing al Qaeda threat

Iraqi foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters on Thursday that armed "operational officers" from al Qaeda in Iraq appeared to be moving into Syria via established smuggling routes along the Iraqi-Syrian border. 

"We have solid information and intelligence that members of al Qaeda terrorist networks have gone in the other direction, to Syria, to help, to liaise, to carry out terrorist attacks," Zebari said during a briefing in Baghdad. 

Al Qaeda fighters regularly passed through Syria on their way to Iraq to support the anti-American insurgency during the most violent years of the Iraq war. 

"Most of the suicide bombers, foreign fighters, elements of al Qaeda used to slip into Iraq from Syria. So they know the routes and the connections," according to Zebari. 

As a result, Baghdad has deployed hundreds of Iraqi national security forces to the country's 400-mile border with Syria, making it the most heavily guarded Iraqi frontier, according to Reuters. 

The terror group's Iraqi cell has experienced a resurgence in the past few months, spurred on by the growing violence in Syria. 

Anti-government fighters and forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad have been battling for nearly a year in an attempt to oust the country's long-time leader from power. 

Government troops backed by paramilitary forces loyal to the Assad regime have bludgeoned the resistance with overwhelming firepower, leaving thousands of rebel fighters and Syrian civilians wounded or dead. 

Amid that carnage, al Qaeda fighters have begun to stream into Syria, looking to take advantage of the growing chaos in the country. 

Should al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) be able to establish a stable presence inside Syria, the current wave of violence inside Iraq could get much worse, Zebari warned. 

"This is our main concern -- about the spillover, about extremist groups taking root in neighboring countries, to have a base," he said. 

The Defense Department confirmed in May that elements of al Qaeda in Iraq were on the ground in Syria, but has no proof that members have infiltrated the ranks of Syrian rebel forces. 

The threat of Syrian rebel forces being co-opted by terror groups like al Qaeda has been the main crux of the Pentagon's argument against providing arms and military support to the rebellion. 

Gen. James Mattis, head of Central Command, told Congress in March that if the United States or its allies decide to funnel heavy weapons to the Syrian resistance, it’s possible those arms could later be turned against American or allied troops by al Qaeda fighters. 

Earlier that month, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the growing instability in Syria was adding to “concern” in military circles over the violent reemergence of al Qaeda in Iraq. 

The Iraqi cell has claimed credit for a recent spate of bombings across Iraq this month, making it one of the most violent months in the country since U.S. forces pulled out six months ago. 

On June 28, a series of explosions rocked Baghdad and areas throughout central Iraq leaving roughly 15 people dead and scores of others wounded. That same day, a car bomb set off in the Diyala province killed five and injured 25 people, according to Reuters. 

A chain of coordinated bombings and attacks on June 16 killed more than 70 people, mostly Iraqi Shi'ites, according to recent reports. Leaders of AQI, which has experienced a resurgence in the country, claimed credit for both those attacks.