BEIRUT — Iraq asserted Thursday that Al Qaeda 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 UN 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’ve solid information and intelligence that members of Al Qaeda’s terrorist network have gone to Syria,’’ he told reporters in Baghdad. Zebari did not elaborate but said his main concern is ‘‘extremist, terrorist groups taking root in neighboring countries.’’
It is 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 Qaeda traffic between Iraq and Syria.
In February, Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda in Iraq indicate extremists are joining the fray.
Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syria 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 Qaeda-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 goverment killings of Syrians.
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 Qaeda-style attacks. But dozens of rebel groups are operating in Syria with little or no coordination between them.
The head of the country’s UN observer mission said the violence in Syria has reached unprecedented levels, insisting a cease-fire is needed for his teams to resume their work.
About 300 UN monitors were sent to Syria to provide an unbiased look at the violence as part of a peace plan put forward by UN-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.
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.