BAGHDAD – Thousands of Iraqi nationals have fled by land and air from Syria over the last two days to escape an escalating civil war, officials said Friday, as Iraqi troops were rushed to seal the border across from a post seized by rebels. Baghdad's prime minister called for the U.N. to help protect the refugees and get them home.
Iraqi officials said about 1,000 had left in eight flights from Damascus, which in the last week has seen its heaviest fighting in Syria's 16-month uprising. Thousands more poured through a land crossing to Iraq despite the rebel takeover of one other major Syrian border post.
The U.N. refugee agency reported Friday that unknown gunmen shot dead an Iraqi refugee family of seven in their Damascus apartment. Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the group, including children, was found "murdered" at close range.
She said refugees living in Syria, mainly Iraqis who have been living in the Damascus suburb of Seida Zeinab, have left their homes due to the increasing violence and "targeted threats" against them.
"What the innocent Iraqis are subjected to — killings and looting — is similar to what was done by the terrorist groups that harmed Iraq's security during the past years," said a statement by Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued late Friday.
"We urge the United Nations for immediate intervention and cooperation with the Syrian authorities in order to protect the Iraqis and facilitate their return to their homeland," the statement said, without giving further details on what the U.N. should do.
More than 2,000 Iraqi troops were rushed to seal the porous desert border near the town of Qaim, the Syrian side of which has been controlled by rebels for two days, said Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Dulaimi. The crossing was blocked by waist-high concrete barriers.
Some 88,000 Iraqis are registered as refugees in Syria, mostly in Damascus, along with about 8,000 refugees from other countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan.
The Iraqi government has so far run eight flights to Damascus, and by Friday morning had evacuated around 1,000 residents, said Capt. Saad al-Khafaji of the state-owned Iraqi Airways.
"We will continue the flights until there are no Iraqis left" in Syria, al-Khafaji said.
Iraq's government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh confirmed that rebels held Qaim, located in the Euphrates river valley 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Baghdad. But he refuted earlier reports that rebels had seized all four major border posts, saying that only the one at Qaim was wrested from the Syrian regime. At the largest border crossing between the two countries at al-Walid, for example, officials said an estimated 50 buses carrying some 3,000 people had so far come through over the past day.
Mohammed Fathi, spokesman for Iraq's western Anbar province, said the Red Crescent was setting up tents and distributing medical supplies for returnees at al-Walid.
Fadhil Radhi, an Iraqi citizen who said he traveled to Baghdad via the crossing, said he and his family passed through al-Walid around midnight on after deciding that life in Syria was too dangerous. His family of five had moved to Syria in 2007 to escape violence in their home in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. They were among what the U.N. estimates was more than a million Iraqis who moved to Syria during Iraq's darkest days between 2006 and 2008.
"We decided to return to Iraq because we feared for our lives, especially after the rise in killings and assaults targeting Iraqis living in Syria," Radhi, 48, said while unloading his luggage from the bus that drove him from Damascus. He said tickets for the trip had more than tripled in price — from $30 to $100 per person — in the last week.
"Thank God, we have the money to pay for the trip back because I know families who are stranded in Syria because they do not have money to go back home," he added.
Anbar spokesman Fathi said the province had received an estimated 2,000 pleas for help from Iraqis living in Damascus who cannot reach the airport because of the fighting.
At Qaim, an Associated Press photographer witnessed civilians looting the Syrian side of the border crossing, hauling away tables and chairs. A black plume of smoke could be seen over the compound.
Brig. Gen. Al-Dulaimi said there appeared to be no Syrian forces between the border at Qaim and the nearest Syrian city, Dair al-Zawr, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) away. The area is traditionally controlled by Sunni tribes.
Another band of rebels had attacked a Syrian military outpost near the Iraqi border in the remote Sinjar mountain range on Thursday, killing 21 soldiers in a grisly onslaught, al-Dulaimi said. "They slaughtered them in a very bad way," al-Dabbagh said, without providing other details.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Karim Kadim in Baghdad, Khalid Mohammed in Qaim, Iraq, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.