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Dozens of pro-Assad Syrian soldiers, officials slain in neighboring Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq — At least 40 Syrian pro-government soldiers and officials were killed in an ambush in the Iraq's Anbar province on Monday, according to an Iraqi government official. 

The Syrians had fled into Iraq after fighting anti-government forces in northern Syria, the source told NBC News, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Syrians, some of whom needed medical attention, handed themselves over to Iraqi authorities, he said.

The group deemed it was safer to return to Damascus by a circuitous route that entailed driving down to Baghdad and then back west to Syria, the official said. While the convoy was making its way through Anbar province — part of Iraq’s Sunni triangle and thus not allied with the Shiite-linked government of Syria's President Bashar Assad — it was ambushed by unknown Iraqi gunmen.

It is thought that at least 40 Syrian forces and officials and seven Iraqi soldiers escorting the foreigners were killed in the ambush.

Thousands of Iraqi Sunnis have been protesting for more than two months against Iraq's Shiite-led government and the perceived marginalization of their sect.

It is not known where the Syrians' bodies were.

Reuters contributed to this report.