BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for killing 48 Syrian soldiers and state employees in Iraq last week, saying their presence proved collusion between the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Unidentified gunmen last week attacked a convoy of Syrians who had fled across the border into Iraq from a Syrian rebel advance, and were being escorted back home through the western province of Anbar, Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland.
"Military detachments succeeded in annihilating an entire column of the Safavid army," al Qaeda's Iraqi wing, Islamic State of Iraq, said in a statement posted online, referring to the dynasty that ruled Shi'ite Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries. Tehran is Assad's closest regional ally.
"The lions of the desert and the men entrusted with difficult missions laid ambushes on the road leading to the crossing," it said.
The group said the presence of the Syrians in Iraq showed the Baghdad government's "firm cooperation" with Assad. The Syrian leader's Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Iraq's Defense Ministry has blamed the attack, which also killed nine Iraqi soldiers, on Syrian armed groups it said had infiltrated the country.
The civil war in Syria, where mainly Sunni rebels are fighting to topple Assad, is straining Iraq's own precarious sectarian and ethnic balance of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds.
Since December, tens of thousands of Sunni protesters have staged demonstrations, especially in Anbar province, venting frustrations that have built up since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein and empowered majority Shi'ites.
Islamic State of Iraq and other Sunni Islamist groups oppose Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has close ties with Iran. Iraq says it takes no side in the Syrian conflict.
While violence in Iraq has eased since the sectarian slaughter that killed tens of thousands in 2006-2007, bombings and killings still jolt the country daily, often targeting Shi'ite areas and local security forces.
Three people including two policemen were killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a vehicle outside a police station in Dibis, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad on Monday. Suicide bombs are the hallmark of Islamic State of Iraq.
A series of shootings across Baghdad killed a further four people including a policeman and a government-backed "Sahwa" fighter, militiamen who have increasingly been targeted for siding with the Shi'ite-led government against fellow Sunnis.
In the northern city of Mosul, another policeman was killed in a roadside bomb explosion and in the town of Rutba, 360 km west of Baghdad, gunmen on Sunday shot the mayor who died of his wounds late on Sunday.
Also late on Sunday, five members of the same family were killed in Shirqat, 300 km north of Baghdad.
Additional reporting by Kareem Raheem in Baghdad, Omar Mohammed in Kirkuk and Gazwan Hassan in Samarra; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Louise Ireland