June 25, 2014 at 11:12 pm

Deepening divide

Syria bombs Sunni targets in Iraq

Shiite Turkmen prepare to head out to defend their homes after it was seized earlier by Sunni militants. (Karim Sahib / Getty Images)

Baghdad — Syrian warplanes bombed Sunni militants’ positions inside Iraq, military officials confirmed Wednesday, deepening the concerns that the extremist insurgency that spans the two neighboring countries could morph into an even wider regional conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned against the threat and said other nations should stay out.

The United States government and a senior Iraqi military official confirmed that Syrian warplanes bombed militants’ positions Tuesday in and near the border crossing in the town of Qaim. Iraq’s other neighbors — Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — were all bolstering flights just inside their airspace to monitor the situation, said the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

American officials said the target was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Sunni extremist group that has seized large swathes of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

“We’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” Kerry said, speaking in Brussels at a meeting of diplomats from NATO nations. “It’s already important that nothing take place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flash point with respect to the sectarian divide.”

Meanwhile, Iran has been flying surveillance drones in Iraq, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue. The intelligence-gathering is in addition to the presence in Baghdad this month of one of Iran’s most powerful generals, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who was there to help Iraqis bolster their defenses and consult with leaders of Shiite militias.

The involvement of Syria and Iran in Iraq suggests a growing cooperation among the three Shiite-led governments in response to the raging Sunni insurgency.

In a reflection of how intertwined the Syria and Iraq conflicts have become, thousands of Shiite Iraqi militiamen helping President Bashar Assad crush the Sunni-led uprising against him are returning home, putting a strain on the overstretched Syrian military as it struggles to retain territory recaptured from rebels.