Syrian Kurds' flight drags Iraq deeper into neighbor's war
PESHKHABOUR, Iraq (Reuters) - Mahmoud Qarou packed his bags two days ago, joining tens of thousands of Syrian refugees escaping into northern Iraq, convinced that the two-year conflict could only get worse.
About 35,000 Syrian refugees have poured into neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan over a new border crossing since Thursday, fleeing a surge in attacks by al Qaeda-linked Sunni Arab rebel group al-Nusra Front on Kurdish villages near the border.
"There is no peaceful solution in Syria. The regime is bombing us and al-Nusra Front members are blowing themselves up all over the place," Qarou said in front of rows of United Nations aid tents.
The sudden massive exodus has raised the prospect of Iraq being dragged deeper into Syria's war. The leader of Iraq's Kurdish region, with thousands of troops under arms, has pledged to protect his kinsmen in Syria from attacks by al Qaeda-linked fighters who hold territory on both sides of the frontier.
Men, women and children crossed a temporary metal pontoon bridge over the Tigris River, carrying small knapsacks or rolled up carpets stuffed with their possessions.
Outside dusty aid tents, some families had arranged their sandals and shoes in neat rows. Children played among crates of U.N. supplies and aid workers handed out bread.
"The border had to be opened because of the increased violence between al-Nusra Front and Kurds," a senior Kurdish official said. "There was a backlog of people wanting to cross which is why the numbers are so large."
Aid agencies said on Thursday that Iraq's Kurdish region had capped the number of refugees allowed in to 3,000 a day to cope with the sudden influx, one of the biggest cross-border migrations of a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The Kurdish regional government shut the frontier months ago, but opened it last Thursday, triggering the mass influx.
Mustapha Sheikh Hassan said his family had fled from town to town in Syria before deciding to come to Iraq.
Hassan's family first escaped Damascus and headed to his hometown in Syria's Kurdish-populated northeast, only to find it under siege by al-Nusra Front fighters. They then traveled to another town which was hardly better.
"There was no water, no electricity and no life, so I left," he said.
REBELS CLASH WITH KURDISH FIGHTERS
Kurds have become one of the warring parties in Syria since the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad splintered on sectarian and ethnic lines, with rival rebel groups turning on each other as they try to grab control of territory.
In the northeast, Kurds have flown their own flag over towns and villages, suggesting an aim to create an autonomous region like the one that has maintained self rule next door in northern Iraq since 1991.
A month ago, Syrian Kurdish forces won control of the town of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border in battle with al Qaeda-linked fighters.
In response to the Kurdish gains, Sunni Islamist rebels have stepped up their attacks in northern Syria in the last 10 days, said Rami Abdelrahman from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
The Sunni Islamist rebels have been fighting against Kurds across a swathe of northern Syria where Kurds are concentrated, including around Aleppo and near Turkish border crossings.
Syria's civil war is now deeply connected to the worsening violence across the frontier in Iraq, with Sunni Islamist militants on the Syrian side joining forces this year with Iraq's own resurgent branch of al Qaeda. In Iraq, al Qaeda attacks on civilians and the security forces have brought violence to levels unseen for at least five years.
Earlier this month Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said his regional government would "make use of all of its capabilities to defend women and children and innocent civilians" on the Syrian side of the border.
He has sent envoys to Syria to report on the plight of Kurds ahead of a regional conference on September 15-17 in Arbil involving Kurdish groups from Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Barzani controls thousands of highly-trained and capable troops in his regional security forces known as Peshmerga, which could have a major impact if they joined the war in Syria. Kurdish officials have played down the idea of direct military action, insisting that Barzani is offering only humanitarian aid, political pressure, diplomatic support and coordination.
"All that Barzani will do is host the refugees, regardless their numbers, in a way that does not negatively impact his local and international agreements," a senior Kurdish official in the central government in Baghdad said.
"Now that the war in Syria turns into a war between al-Qaeda and the Syrian regime, Kurds are paying the cost. It was necessary to find all the means to shelter these refugees because they are Kurds."
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy and Sylvia Westall in Baghdad and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Peter Graff)
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