U.S. intel ties al-Qaida to Syrian bombings
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WASHINGTON -- Top U.S. intelligence officials pointed to al-Qaida in Iraq Thursday as the likely culprit behind recent bombings in Syria, the deadliest attacks against the government in the 11-month uprising.
Though the U.S. has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, his fall could lead to a power vacuum that al-Qaida's largest regional affiliate or other extremist groups could fill, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress. And that could allow such groups to help themselves to Syria's vast stockpiles of chemical weapons, he said.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the crisis in Syria has become "that much more serious" and worrisome to the United States as a result of indications that al-Qaida has infiltrated the government's opposition.
"It does raise concerns for us that al-Qaida is trying to assert a presence there," he said. "As to just what their role is and how extensive their role is, I think that still remains to be seen."
In New York, meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Mr. Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations it said his government had committed. The vote, though not legally binding, reflects widespread world opinion.
Supporters want to deliver a strong message to Mr. Assad to immediately stop the bloody crackdown that has killed more than 5,400 people and hand power to his vice president. The non-binding resolution had more than 70 co-sponsors and passed on a vote of 137-12 with 17 abstentions. Russia and China, which vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council, were among those voting against the measure, along with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
The transfer of power to Syria's vice-president is part of the Arab League plan for a transitional government which was adopted on Jan. 22. It calls for the establishment of a national unity government within two months to prepare for internationally supervised parliamentary and presidential elections.
In Washington, the comments by Mr. Panetta and Mr. Clapper marked a diplomatically dissonant moment of near-agreement between American officials and the Syrian leadership they have called on to step down, after the deaths of thousands of Syrians in the unrest that started during last year's Arab Spring.
Mr. Assad long has blamed terrorists for starting the uprising, which has pitted his military against a rag-tag group of angry Syrians, divided by religion and neighborhood.
Al-Qaida called for Mr. Assad's ouster last week. That endorsement has created new obstacles for the U.S., its Western allies and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help push Mr. Assad from power.
Mr. Clapper said bombings against Syrian security and intelligence targets in Damascus in December, and two more in the nation's largest city, Aleppo, bear "all the earmarks of an al-Qaida-like attack," leading U.S. intelligence to believe the Iraqi militant branch is extending its reach into Syria.
He predicted continued stalemate in Syria, with the opposition too disorganized to present a formidable threat on one side, and Iran providing arms and continued support to prop up the government on the other.
But he warned Mr. Assad's fall would be a boon to extremists.
"There is no identifiable group that would succeed him," Mr. Clapper said. "So there would be kind of a vacuum, I think, that would lend itself to extremists operating in Syria."
First Published February 17, 2012 12:00 am