By Sylvia Westall and Murad Jambaz
SUHILLA, Iraq (Reuters) - Mariam Bozan Khalil spent days avoiding Syrian rebel militiamen on the road to Iraq, only to be forced to finish her journey on foot through sun-scorched hills.
She is one of more than 40,000 Syrians who have escaped to Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region in the past 10 days. The exodus is one of the biggest cross-border migrations since what is now a civil war between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels started more than two years ago.
The mainly Kurdish refugees are fleeing groups of fighters that have been seizing control of villages over the border, Khalil said at a reception camp in the Iraqi frontier village of Suhilla, around 400km (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
"We don't know them. They just come, take power and give themselves a name," she said, as her 18-month-old son slept spread-eagled on a cloth in front of her. "We don't know who we are supposed to support. The people, we are just left to be trampled underfoot," the 28-year-old Kurd said.
The sudden influx of Syrian refugees has brought Iraq's prosperous and well-armed northern region closer to the conflict which has already killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. The leader of the autonomous region has promised to protect Kurds over the border from attacks.
Some Kurds in Syria have taken up arms and clashed with rival rebel groups in a revolt which has deepened sectarian and ethnic lines. Kurds form large populations in Syria, Turkey and Iran but have autonomous rule only in Iraq.
The mass flight into northern Iraq started just over a week ago when Iraqi Kurdish authorities opened a rickety pontoon bridge over the Tigris River. Officials said they were forced to act because there were reports that their kinsmen were being slaughtered by al Qaeda-linked fighters over the border, in a part of Syria the Iraqi regional government refers to as Western Kurdistan.
Days after the first wave of refugees, border chiefs shut the temporary bridge, saying they feared it would collapse under the weight of people. Now they are allowing only people needing emergency aid to travel over in small metal boats.
"I don't think we can open it again, it is not safe, it is not stable," said Nazm Hamid Abdullah, a deputy border chief at a post near the bridge, which now stops short of the shore.
The rest of those escaping have to cross by foot on a winding 4.5 km (3 mile) hill path. A mule can be hired from villagers on the Syrian side to carry luggage for about $10.
Khalil's journey began 350 km (220 miles) to the west in the Syrian rebel-held city of Raqqa which she fled by car to avoid the fighting. Then the trouble in the border area forced her to take the path to Iraq, which avoids the river crossing.
The Islamist militias al Nusra and al Qaeda's Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant have been fighting for control of parts of northern and northeastern Syria in recent months against Kurdish groups which have taken advantage of the anti-Assad rebellion to assert their control over majority-Kurdish areas.
At the border camp, refugee Dijla Mohammed Ibrahim said Kurds have been horrified by an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Syrian capital last week. "They did it in Damascus, maybe they will use them in Raqqa," the 22-year-old said. "Innocent children and women were killed. Those people who use such chemical weapons should be punished."
The Damascus attack has revived memories of when thousands of Iraqi Kurds were gassed in Halabja by the warplanes of late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1988.
For Fatma Mohammed Nasser, looting by members of the rebel army had been the trigger to leave Syria. "They stole all of our things, our house, our possessions," she said, feeding her five-month-old son with water from a baby bottle. "My brother is newly-married and their house was seized." Rebels even made off with the wedding dress.
"Everyone was so sad, even children started to hate life," Nasser said. "The Free Army stopped giving us baby milk and surrounded us instead."
She sat under a plastic canopy assembled by aid groups who handed out water and food. Aid workers said some Kurdish troops had quietly crossed into a "no man's land" between the countries to stack crates of drinks and snacks on the path through the hills where temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 F).
At the camp, children with cracked lips slept on top of suitcases and plastic bags stuffed with clothes. Women wrapped their faces with scarves to protect from the dusty wind and shielded children's eyes.
"There have been two years of attacks, there is no life, no work anymore," said Mohammed Bin Mustafa, 57, sitting in the shade with his sandals neatly tucked to one side. "I ask Allah to send someone good to us in Syria, to lead us back to the life we had before."
(This story has been refiled to remove extraneous word "of" in seventh paragraph)
(Editing by David Stamp)