BEIRUT -- Iraq asserted yesterday that al-Qaida insurgents are streaming out of the country to carry out attacks in Syria, an ominous development as the Syrian conflict inflames 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 United Nation observer mission said yesterday 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 have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaida's terrorist network have gone to Syria," he told reporters in Baghdad. Zebari did not elaborate or provide details but said his main concern is "extremist, terrorist groups taking root in neighboring countries."

In February, al-Qaida 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.

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