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Militant group's surge in Iraq fans regional fears

Monday - 6/23/2014, 5:14pm  ET

FILE - In this file photo taken Friday, June 20, 2014, Lebanese police intelligence gather outside a hotel after security forces raided it in Beirut's Hamra district, Lebanon. An al-Qaida breakaway group's seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria has sent tremors across the Middle East, jolting neighboring countries into action over fears that the Islamic militants may set their sights on them next. In Lebanon heavily armed police busted a suspected sleeper cell allegedly linked to the group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in raids on two hotels in central Beirut. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

OMAR AKOUR
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- An al-Qaida breakaway group's seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria has sent tremors across the Middle East, jolting neighboring countries into action over fears that the Islamic militants may set their sights on them next.

In Jordan, the army dispatched reinforcements to its border with Iraq last week to boost security, while in Lebanon heavily armed police busted a purported sleeper cell allegedly linked to the group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in raids on two hotels in central Beirut.

The region has warily watched the Islamic State's expansion over the past year across much of northern and eastern Syria. But the group's audacious offensive this month in neighboring Iraq, aided by Sunni tribal fighters and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, threatens to redraw the Middle East map -- putting a host of governments on alert.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is traveling through the Middle East, warned during a stop in Cairo that the Islamic State has become "a threat not only to Iraq, but to the entire region."

His words were echoed by Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, who warned in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday that the dramatic events in Iraq threaten to implode "the entire Middle East" and undermine security in Europe and beyond.

Topping the list of concerned nations are Jordan and Lebanon, two countries already grappling with fallout from the Syrian civil war. The urgency of the matter was laid bare after Islamic State fighters captured the Iraqi side of the border with Jordan on Sunday.

The Islamic State has never explicitly stated its desire to expand into either country. But it openly aims to create an Islamic state that encompasses Iraq and Greater Syria, also known as the Levant -- traditional names that refer to a swath of land that includes Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

An Islamic State propaganda video released last week featuring five fighters from Britain and Australia underlined how far the group is willing to go.

"Look at the soldiers -- we understand no borders," says one of the men in the 13-minute clip posted online. "We have participated in battles in Sham (Syria), and we will go to Iraq in a few days, and we will fight there and come back, and we will even go to Jordan and Lebanon, with no problems -- wherever our sheik wants to send us."

The Islamic State's estimated 10,000 fighters already have their hands full in Iraq and Syria, and there's no indication that the group has any immediate designs on Jordan or Lebanon. But governments in both countries are eager to assure their anxious publics.

In Amman, officials are clearly concerned. Jordan's interior minister, Hussein al-Majali, told lawmakers last week that the kingdom is "surrounded by extremism," and that the army has fully deployed along the country's 110-mile (180-kilometer) frontier with Iraq. An AP journalist saw additional reinforcements, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, traveling toward the border on Sunday.

Jordan, a close U.S. ally with a well-equipped and well-trained military, would present a far more formidable foe than Iraq's demoralized army, making any cross-border foray unlikely, analysts say.

"What is most worrisome is that radical groups may already have cells inside Jordan among their supporters," said Ramzy Mardini, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, based in Amman. "Militants in Syria have conducted attacks in several capital cities in the region of neighboring states. There's much concern that Amman isn't immune from experiencing the same."

Extremists have targeted Jordan before. The Islamic State's precursor, known as al-Qaida in Iraq, was founded by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Under his leadership, the group carried out a triple bombing on Amman hotels in 2005 that killed more than 50 people.

Jordan is home to a growing movement of jihadists and ultraconservative Salafis, Mardini said. Hundreds of Jordanians are known to have traveled to Syria to fight in the uprising against President Bashar Assad. Some have joined extremist groups, including the Islamic State.

But a leader of Jordan's Salafis, Mohammed Shalabi, played down the Islamic State's presence in the country.

"There are many people in Jordan who like the Islamic State, but on the ground, they don't have organized people or members in Jordan," said Shalabi, who is also known as Abu Sayyaf.

Still, there is evidence that the group has established at least a base presence. In Maan, in southern Jordan, some 200 supporters of the Islamic State held protests after Friday prayers, carrying banners that declared the city the "Fallujah of Jordan," a reference to the Iraqi city that has been a militant hotbed.

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