Thousands of Syrians flee to Iraq; crisis feared

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 19 2013 2:41 p.m. MDT

Bahzad Ali Adam, deputy governor of Iraq's Dahuk province, which borders Syria, said the latest flow will put more strain on the budget and public services in the region, which is also home to thousands of mainly Iraqi Arabs and Christians who have fled the violence in other parts of the country.

"The refugees need place to live, food and health services," Adam, who heads the operation room to receive Syrian refugees, said in a phone interview from Baghdad.

Earlier this month, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, vowed to defend Syria's Kurds. He gave no details on how he would do so, but Iraqi Kurdistan boasts a powerful and experienced armed force known as the peshmerga.

Armed intervention by Iraqi Kurds would carry enormous risks and appears unlikely. Still, the pledge, along with the fighting, shows the potential of Syria's conflict to spread to neighboring countries and become a full-blown regional war.

The Kurdish exodus is just one layer in Syria's increasingly complex civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people, ripped apart the country's delicate sectarian fabric and destroyed cities and towns. Assad's regime has used warplanes, tanks and ballistic missiles to try to pound rebellious areas into submission.

The rebels, along with the U.S. and other Western powers, say the Assad regime has also used chemical weapons in the conflict. The Syrian government and its ally, Russia, blame the opposition for the alleged chemical attacks.

On Monday, a team of U.N. experts began their long-awaited investigation into the purported used of chemical arms.

The team's task is to determine whether chemical weapons have been used, and if so, which ones. Its mandate does not extend to establishing who was responsible for an attack, and that has led some observers to question the overall value of the probe.

In Monday's violence, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces in the coastal province of Latakia recaptured nine villages as well as all of the hilltop military observation posts that rebels seized two weeks ago.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed from Beirut.

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