The White House is once again explaining how uninvited guests wound up meeting President Barack Obama when a couple eyeing a tour ended up at a Veterans Day breakfast. Image Credit: AP

Washington: The Central Intelligence Agency is ramping up support to elite Iraqi anti-terrorism units to better fight Al Qaida affiliates, amid alarm in Washington about spillover from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, according to US officials.

The stepped-up mission expands a covert US presence on the edges of the two-year-old Syrian conflict, at a time of American concerns about the growing power of extremists in the Syrian rebellion.

Al Qaida in Iraq, the terrorist network’s affiliate in the country, has close ties to Syria-based Jabhat Al Nusra, also known as the Al Nusra Front, an opposition militant group that has attacked government installations and controls territory in northern Syria. The US State Department placed Al Nusra on its list of foreign terror organisations in December, calling the group an alias for Al Qaida in Iraq.

In a series of secret decisions from 2011 to late 2012, the White House directed the CIA to provide support to Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service, or CTS, a force that reports directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, officials said.

The CIA has since ramped up its work with the CTS — taking control of a mission long run by the US military, according to administration and defence officials. For years, US special-operations forces worked with CTS against Al Qaida in Iraq. But the military’s role has dwindled since US troops pulled out of the country at the end of 2011.

The switch to CIA authority will complement other US efforts to counter Al Nusra, a former US official said. In Turkey, the CIA has officers working with select rebel groups, US officials said. In Jordan, US special-operations troops are training Jordanian forces in how to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons should Damascus lose control of them or use them.

This shift to the CIA in Iraq also is in line with the Obama administration’s goal of limiting the US role in the Syrian conflict. The administration is providing non-lethal assistance to the opposition, but refuses to send weapons, in part to avoid aiding extremist elements among rebel forces.

Syrian violence increasingly is spilling into Iraq. Last week, about 50 Syrian soldiers who had sought safety in Iraq from rebel fighters were killed in an ambush on Iraqi territory. Iraqi officials said the attack bore the hallmarks of Al Qaida in Iraq.

US officials saw the attack as an ominous sign of growing collaboration by militants on both sides of the Syria-Iraqi border.

“Right there along the border, they have a potential for a spillover of violence. What we just saw happen there is a reminder it is real. It is not just an imagined threat,” a senior defence official said.

US intelligence agencies believe Al Qaida in Iraq has provided a steady stream of fighters to work with Al Nusra.

Al Nusra’s fighters in recent months took control of a government base and an airfield in northern Syria, among other attacks. The group is seen as the most powerful force in rebel-controlled areas of Syria along the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

During a visit to Washington this month, Faleh Al Fayed, Iraq’s national security adviser, said about 300 Islamist fighters enter Syria each month to fight Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Some of those fighters are veterans of Al Qaida in Iraq, he said. “The experience that was gained by Al Qaida in Iraq has now started to be deployed in Syria,” he said on March 4, referring to fighters, arms and tactics.

But the fighting in Syria also represents a long-term threat to Iraq, US officials say. Some officials say al Nusra will eventually focus its attention on destabilising the Iraqi government.

“There is certainly the potential, once [Al] Assad falls, for Al Nusra Front to orient strongly against Iraq,” the senior defence official said.

Syria has been a source of contention between the US and Iraqi governments. The Obama administration has called on Al Assad to step aside, whereas Iraq has taken a neutral stance. But officials say Washington and Baghdad see eye to eye on the threat posed by Al Nusra and Al Qaida in Iraq.