The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda carried out two recent bombings in Damascus and was likely behind suicide bombings Friday that killed at least 28 people in the Syrian city of Aleppo, McClatchy Newspapers reported.
Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the newspaper chain said the incidents appeared to verify Syrian President Bashar Assad’s charges of al-Qaeda involvement in the uprising against his rule.
The Syrian opposition has claimed that the Assad regime had staged the bombings to discredit the pro-democracy movement, the report said.
The first Damascus attack occurred on December 23, when suicide bombers detonated cars packed with explosives outside intelligence agency compounds, killing at least 44 people.
On January 6, at least 26 people were killed and dozens injured in a bombing against a second intelligence agency compound.
The al-Qaeda presence in Syria also raises the possibility that Islamic extremists will try to hijack the uprising, McClatchy Newspapers said.
U.S. intelligence reports indicate that the bombings came on the orders of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who assumed leadership of al-Qaeda after the last year’s death of Osama bin Laden, the newspaper chain noted.
U.S. officials said that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) began pushing to become involved in Syria as Assad’s security forces and gangs of loyalists launched a crackdown on opposition demonstrations, igniting large-scale bloodshed, the report said.
Zawahiri finally authorized AQI to begin operations in Syria in what’s believed to be the first time that the branch has operated outside of Iraq, McClatchy Newspapers pointed out.
Meanwhile in Syria on Saturday, Assad’s forces killed at least four civilians in an intensified tank and rocket bombardment on opposition districts in the city of Homs.
“This is the most violent barrage since the attack on Homs started six days ago. The four included a 55-year old woman. They were killed by shelling that hit a building where they live in Bab Amro,” opposition activist Mohammad Hassan told Reuters by satelite phone from Homs.
The account could not be independently confirmed. Syria restricts access by most foreign journalists.
Footage on Youtube showed a doctor at a field hospital in Bab Amro next to the body of the woman, who appeared to have been hit in the head.
“This is Ibtissam al-Dalati, mother of three...Shrapnel hit her in the head,” the doctor says, holding the woman's fractured and bloody head.
“I call upon all Syrians to take to the streets to take the pressure off Homs.”