DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ A former Iraqi ambassador has defected to Syria and called on opposition groups to intensify efforts to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Faris Abdel-Karim al-Ani, who left Iraq almost two weeks ago, said Saturday he defected because he feared for his life. He did not explain why.

Al-Ani had served as ambassador to Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka and later worked as a director general at the Iraqi presidency office. That position, which he held until his defection, is largely ceremonial and is generally awarded to senior officials near retirement.

``The internal situation in Iraq is tragic and is getting worse every day due to the oppression and continued executions perpetrated by the Iraqi regime,'' he told reporters.

He called on opposition groups ``to reach a common strategy on how to topple the Iraqi regime.''

Saddam's security forces have carried out a major crackdown following a December assassination attempt against Odai Hussein, Saddam's eldest son and heir apparent.