BEIRUT -- Iraq said Thursday al-Qaida insurgents are leaving the country to carry out attacks in Syria, as the Syrian conflict inflames an already volatile region.
Extremists, taking advantage of the chaos and violence gripping Syria, have reportedly been making inroads as the 16-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad grinds on. The head of the Syrian UN observer mission said Thursday violence in the country had reached "unprecedented levels."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zeba-ri said authorities are worried extremists could gain a foothold in Syria, posing a new threat to regional stability.
"We have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaida's terrorist network have gone to Syria," he said. He didn't provide details.
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 have born the hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the revolt began. Media restrictions make it difficult to gain a credible account of events.
Meanwhile, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other opposition websites said Thursday Syrian Brig.-Gen. Manaf Tlass -- a member of the elite Republican Guards and son of a former defence minister -- reportedly had defected and fled to Turkey.
Also Thursday, Wikileaks said it was in the process of publishing material from 2.4 million Syrian emails -- many of which came from official government accounts, it said.
-- The Associated Press