By Sylvia Westall
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has "solid information" that al Qaeda militants are crossing from Iraq into Syria to carry out attacks and has sent reinforcements to the border, the foreign minister said on Thursday.
Hoshiyar Zebari said al Qaeda "operational officers" appeared to be moving through old smuggling routes carrying weapons.
"We have solid information and intelligence that members of al Qaeda terrorist networks have gone in the other direction, to Syria, to help, to liaise, to carry out terrorist attacks," he told a news conference in Baghdad.
Syria says that a 16-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad is not a popular revolt but a "terrorist" conspiracy funded and directed from abroad, not least by the wealthy Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, also says much of the violence in Syria bears the fingerprints of al Qaeda and its Sunni Muslim Islamist ideology.
Iraq has reinforced security along its 680 km (422 miles) desert border with Syria, making it the most heavily guarded Iraqi frontier, Zebari said.
"Most of the suicide bombers, foreign fighters, elements of al Qaeda used to slip into Iraq from Syria. So they know the routes and the connections. It does not mean that these operations are done regularly in an organized way," he said.
"This is our main concern - about the spillover, about extremist groups taking root in neighboring countries, to have a base," Zebari added.
Al Qaeda operatives were communicating through underground networks of militants, he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said he believes al Qaeda was responsible for two suicide car bombs in Damascus in May that killed at least 55 people.
Iraq's al Qaeda wing has claimed some of the recent bombings against Shi'ites in Iraq as it tries to stoke tensions following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December.
(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)