World

Syrian troops battle rebels in Daraa, advance on Iraq border

Syrian government forces and rebels were locked in their heaviest fighting yet in Daraa on Monday, as opposition activists feared troops would try and retake the southern city despite a "de-escalation agreement."

Pro-government forces meanwhile advanced to a second location along the border with Iraq, where they are expected to link up with state-sanctioned militias on the other side. Most of the desert territory is controlled by the Islamic State group.

The state-affiliated Ikhbariya TV station hailed the government's second contact with Iraq with a triumphant step by its correspondent Rabih Dibi over the berm border.

There was no one to greet him on the other side, but he promised "the brotherly forces of Iraq" would link up with them soon.

Iran sponsors both the Iraqi militias and the forces arriving at the border on the Syrian side, including Syrian army units, as well as militias organized by Tehran from Lebanon to Afghanistan.

Iran's state-affiliated Tasnim News Agency published photos of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, praying with Afghan fighters on the Syrian side of the border.

On Friday, the Syrian coalition established its first toehold on the Iraqi border in three years, with the help of Russian airstrikes against Islamic State militants. The troops bypassed U.S. special operations forces embedded with local opposition fighters at the Tanf and Zakf desert outposts dozens of kilometers (miles) to the south.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, now a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, warned in a brief that the opposition forces have been cornered. He said the Syrian government was determined to "link up to pro-Iranian forces on the Iraqi side of the border."

In Daraa, rebels and government forces were fighting for control of the city's Palestinian refugee camp, a built-up residential area.

Local resident and media activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh said it was the third time in eight days that pro-government forces tried to advance with tanks under the cover of airstrikes.

"Today's campaign was the most vicious yet," al-Masalmeh said.

Major Issam al-Rais, a spokesman for the rebels' Southern Front division fighting in the city, said the battle was "life or death."

Rais said 17 fighters from the government's side had been killed in the fighting in the last two days. It was not clear how many rebels were killed.

A Syrian general, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, blamed the fighting in Daraa on the rebels.

The army "will not stop its operations until it wipes out the last terrorist in Syria," the general said. He said the military was "committed to the cease-fire" but would respond to any aggression.

A "de-escalation agreement" brokered by Iran, Russia and Turkey in May has not brought any relief for the city, activists said. The agreement covers four zones in Syria where the rebels are fighting pro-government forces.

As in other formerly rebel-held areas, the government has brought its monopoly on air power to bear in Daraa. Video footage shot by activists shows parts of the city in ruins.

The activist-run Nabaa Media outlet released footage of thick black smoke rising over the city following a string of blasts. It alleged the government was using napalm-like weapons. The footage was filmed Sunday. The Syrian general categorically denied the claims.

Daraa is an important link on the highway connecting Damascus to Jordan and was once an important source of customs revenue for the capital. It has been contested since the first anti-government demonstrations in 2011.

Nabaa contributor Mohammad Abazeid said the city's opposition-held areas are "nearly empty" and have been heavily damaged by the bombardment. He said some 20,000 residents have fled the opposition-held quarters since February.

An infant girl was killed in rebel shelling of the government-held parts of the city, according to the Observatory and Syrian state media.

Syria is in the sixth year of a civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.