Middle East

Iraqi helicopters hit jihadist convoy in Syria: ministry

Fighters of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria carry their weapons during a parade at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey January 2, 2014. REUTERS/Yaser Al-Khodor

BAGHDAD: Iraqi army helicopters hit a jihadist convoy in eastern Syria Sunday, killing at least eight, in a show of strength just days before the country's first national elections since 2010.

It was the first strike inside Syria claimed by Iraq since the three-year uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011.

The conflict has spilled across the border, contributing to a dramatic rise of violence in Iraq since the country's 2006-2008 sectarian war.

Meanwhile, Iraqis living overseas began voting ahead of Wednesday's general election that will see Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seeking a third term despite worsening sectarian tensions at home, rampant corruption and high unemployment.

"The army struck eight tanker trucks in Wadi Suwab inside Syrian territory as they were trying to enter Iraqi territory to provide the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) with fuel," interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said.

Sunni radicals ISIS emerged in Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003, and later expanded into Syria during the uprising against Assad.

Maan said "there was no coordination with the Syrian regime" over the strike.

"Our responsibility now is to protect our border and to protect the border from the other side, because there is no protection from the other side," he said.

The targeted vehicles were apparently travelling to the western Iraqi border province of Anbar, where ISIS has been battling Iraqi security forces.

Fighters from ISIS and other militants control the city of Fallujah in Anbar, just a short drive from Baghdad, and security officials have voiced worry that the group is seeking to encroach on the capital as well.

Illustrating those concerns, ISIS on Friday set off twin bombings against a Shiite political rally, killing 36 people.

The latest show of force by the government security forces came as voting opened for Iraqis living in 29 countries overseas, including substantial contingents in Britain, Sweden, Jordan, Iran and Germany.

"I want to see my country rise and assume its leading position," said Lina Moushtaq after she voted in Dubai.

Out of country voting will run on Sunday and Monday. Prisons and hospitals as well as members of Iraq's security forces will cast their ballots on Monday as well ahead of Wednesday's poll.

Maliki, lambasted by critics for allegedly consolidating power and targeting minority groups, is bidding for a third term and with a fractious and divided opposition, he remains the frontrunner, analysts and diplomats say.

Maliki contends that foreign interference is behind deteriorating security and complains that he has been saddled with a unity government of groups that snipe at him in public and block his legislative efforts.

No single party is likely to win an absolute majority in the upcoming polls, however, and as in previous elections, coalition talks are likely to take months.

The month-long campaign has seen Baghdad and other cities plastered with posters and decked out in bunting, as candidates have taken to the streets, staged loud rallies and challenged each other in angry debates.

Attacks on candidates, election workers and political rallies have cast a shadow over the election, and parts of the country that have been out of government control for months will not see any ballots cast.

One reason for cheer, however, has been the rising oil output that has swelled government coffers.

But even enthusiasm for that has been tempered because the increased exports have made little impact on employment and voters complain much of the revenue is lost to graft.





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