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Gunmen killed 48 Syrians and nine Iraqis Monday as they ambushed a convoy in western Iraq carrying Syrian soldiers to the border, the premier's spokesman said, vowing to resist attempts to spread Syria's conflict to its neighbour.
The ambush, a day after a key Syrian opposition group accused Iraq of interfering in Syria, threatens to entangle Iraq in its neighbour's bloody, prolonged civil war -- something Baghdad has sought to avoid.
"This confirms our fears of the attempt of some to move the conflict to Iraq, but we will face these attempts by all sides with all of our power," Ali Mussawi, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesman, told AFP, putting the toll from the ambush at 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi soldiers killed.
The Syrian soldiers crossed into Iraq from the Yaarubiyeh border crossing, scene of fighting on Saturday between rebels and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Khalaf al-Dulaimi said.
The soldiers were first transported by Iraqi authorities to Baghdad from the northern Nineveh province, bordering Yaarubiyeh, and were on their way to being handed over to Syrian authorities on the border with western Anbar province when they were ambushed, he added.
Armed men attacked the convoy from two sides with mortar rounds, automatic weapons and mines.
Dulaimi said eight Syrians and four Iraqis were also wounded in the attack, while three vehicles in the convoy were destroyed.
The ambush was "a clear message to all Iraqis that what is happening in Syria today effectively moved to Iraq," political analyst Hamid Fadhel told AFP.
Anbar province's Sunni residents have close tribal, family and trade ties with eastern Syria, with which the province shares a long border.
Once home to key Sunni militant strongholds, Anbar also has religious affiliations with Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, who are mainly Sunni Muslim.
Iraq's "western and northern areas close to the border with Syria have a Sunni majority and in one way or another are supportive of the armed groups fighting the Assad regime," Fadhel said.
Monday's attack came after defence ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said an Iraqi soldier was killed and three people including a soldier wounded by fire from Syria during clashes between Syrian rebel and regime forces at the Yaarubiyeh crossing.
He also said four wounded Syrian soldiers were treated at an Iraqi hospital during the fighting on Saturday.
Baghdad has pointedly avoided calling for the departure of Assad, who is locked in a bloody civil war with rebels opposed to his regime, and has instead urged an end to violence by all parties.
But US officials have repeatedly called on the Iraqi government to halt Iranian overflights to Syria via Iraqi airspace that they say are transporting weapons to Assad's forces.
A key Syrian opposition group on Sunday accused the Iraqi government of intervening in Syria's conflict.
"After the Iraqi government headed by Nuri al-Maliki gave political and intelligence support to the Syrian regime... the Baghdad regime has moved on to a new level of intervention in Syrian affairs," the Syrian National Council charged.
It said Baghdad was "attacking the Syrian people, their basic rights and their territorial sovereignty."