BAGHDAD – Rebels attacked Syrian forces Thursday on two spots along the nation's porous border with Iraq, killing 21 soldiers and seizing control of one of the four major border posts, a senior Iraqi army official said.
The assaults against Syria's government unfolded throughout the day, putting the Iraqi army on high alert to prevent any violence from spilling across the border.
"We have security concerns because the border crossing now is out of the Syria government's control, and nobody can anticipate what will happen," said Iraqi Army Brig. General Qassim al-Dulaimi.
Al-Duliami said about a half-dozen rebels stormed the Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim on Thursday morning. He said the rebels forced the border guards from their posts but did not cross into Iraq.
Qaim is located about 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Baghdad. Mohammed Fathi, spokesman for the governor of Iraq's western Anbar province that includes Qaim, said the border crossing had already been closed to traffic because of the civil war.
Hours later, in the remote Sinjar mountain range, al-Dulaimi said rebels attacked a Syrian army outpost near the Iraqi border, killed 20 soldiers and their commander. The rebels then seized control of the outpost, al-Duliami said.
However, local Iraqi officials said two other major border crossings remained in control of the Syrian regime. Fathi said the largest port at al-Walid, which is also located near the Jordanian border and accounts or an estimated 90 percent of traffic between Iraq and Syria — remained in the regime's hands.
In a telephone interview shortly after midnight Friday, Fathi, who said he was speaking from al-Walid, described seeing about 200 Iraqi refugees who had just returned from Syria. He said the situation there was normal.
"We are providing the returnees with water, bread and some food. We are expecting more to come. We will do our best to ensure that they reach their homes safely."
Iraqi officials said two northern border crossings — in Ninevah province near Rabiya and in the self-ruling Kurdish region — were also still in Syrian government control.
The border between Iraq and Syria is 605 kilometers (363-miles) long.
Earlier this week, Iraq's government urged all its citizens living in Syria to return home immediately to escape the violence of the country's escalating civil war. The government called on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the opposition forces seeking to overthrow him to resist harming Iraqis who may be caught in the crossfire, citing a rise in killings and assaults on his Iraqis in Syria.
The U.N. estimated there were 1 million Iraq refugees in Syria and 3,000 more seeking asylum as of January, the month from which the latest figures are available.
Thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria to escape widespread sectarian fighting during the worst period of violence in their homeland between 2005 and 2007.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Lara Jakes contributed to this report.