Top Syria cleric threatens attacks on U.S., EU

October 10, 11

BEIRUT (AP) Syria's top Sunni Muslim cleric has warned Western countries against military intervention in Syria and threatened to retaliate with suicide bombings in the United States and Europe if his country comes under attack.

Western countries have shown no willingness to open a Libyan-style military campaign against the regime of President Bashar Assad, who has launched a bloody crackdown on the seven-month uprising against his rule, and NATO's chief said last week the alliance has "no intention whatsoever" of intervening in Syria.

Still, the prospect of such an intervention seems to have rattled the Assad regime, although publicly, officials say they are confident there would be no such thing because no one wants to foot the bill.

In a speech late Sunday, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, a state-appointed cleric and Assad loyalist, issued a clear warning to the West.

"I say to all of Europe, I say to America, we will set up suicide bombers who are now in your countries, if you bomb Syria or Lebanon," Hassoun said in a speech late Sunday. "From now on an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

Hassoun spoke to a delegation of Lebanese women who came to offer their condolences for his son's death by unknown gunmen earlier this month. "Don't come near our country, I beg you," Hassoun said.

The international community's unwillingness to get directly involved stems from a mix of international political complications, worries over unleashing a civil war and plausible risks of touching off a wider Middle East conflict with archfoes Israel and Iran in the mix.

Hassoun's comments follow another warning by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who told the international community Sunday not to recognize a new umbrella council formed by the opposition, threatening "tough measures" against any country that does so.

Moallem did not specify what measures Damascus might take. But he went on to say that countries that do not protect Syrian missions could find their own embassies treated in the same way.

The Syrian National Council, announced last week in Turkey, is a broad-based group which includes most major opposition factions. No country or international body has recognized it so far as a legal representative of the Syrian people, but the European Union is intensifying its contacts with the nascent Syrian opposition.

EU officials said Monday the were also moving to widen sanctions against Assad's regime, whose ongoing crackdown on civilian protesters has killed nearly 3,000 people.

"I believe we have to get to know them better and get to know their intentions," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in Luxembourg of the council.

Earlier in the day, the members of the council said they agreed on a democratic framework for a future nation and that they want international observers to be allowed into Syria to gauge the situation.

Ghied Al Hashmy, a political scientist who participated in a conference of Syrian opposition members in Sweden, said the council opposes military intervention but wants more political pressure on Syria, such as the targeted economic sanctions the EU has been applying.

Despite the mounting international pressure on Assad, his regime has been unrelenting in its crackdown.

On Monday, Syrian troops clashed with opponents in the flashpoint city of Homs, a hotbed of dissent where hundreds of army deserters are believed to be active. The renewed fighting in the central city illustrates the difficulty regime forces face in stamping out anti-government protests that have been bolstered by army deserters fighting back soldiers.

The trend toward militarization of the uprising has raised fears that Syria may be sliding toward civil war.

Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes over the weekend between Syrian soldiers and army defectors and a shooting at a funeral killed at least 17 members of the military and 14 civilians.

In addition to the violence in Homs on Sunday, activists said there was fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern village of Dael.

The LCC reported heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft fire in the Homs neighborhoods of Bayada and Qsour, and loud explosions in Khaldiyeh. Both groups said the fighting resulted in the destruction of homes and damaged shops and cars in several districts.

"The situation has been terrible since yesterday," said a Homs resident where the Observatory reported at least seven civilians were killed on Sunday. "The clashes were very intense yesterday and I heard shooting this morning as well."

The man, who asked that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals, said he saw troops in armored personnel carriers around tense areas of Homs, such as Khaldiyeh and Baba Amr. "The army is isolating some areas," he said, reporting bouts of gunfire throughout the Sunday and Monday.

The Observatory said five soldiers and three civilians were killed in Dael, while the rest were killed in the Jabal al-Zawiyah areas in Idlib. Also Sunday, a shooting at a funeral in the Damascus suburb of Dumair left three dead, it said.

The violence was the worst since last month's clashes in the central town of Rastan that the army retook after five days of intense fighting. The Syrian government denies any army defections and blames terrorists and Muslim extremists for the violence.

Thousands mourn Iraq-linked Syrian cleric

Sat 29 Sep 2007

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Thousands of people attended a funeral in northern Syria on Saturday for a cleric who had recruited insurgents to fight U.S. forces in Iraq.

Witnesses said a mosque in the city of Aleppo was packed with mourners for Sheikh Mahmoud Abou al-Qaqa, a Syrian Kurd who was shot dead after leading prayers on Friday.

"The crowd was mainly young and many wept. The coffin was paraded in the district he preached in," one man who attended the funeral told Reuters. "No speeches were given. I think silence was best given the sensitivities generated by the killing".

Qaqa's coffin was wrapped in the Syrian flag and his followers wore red bandanas. One put attendance at 20,000.

The Syrian government has not commented on the killing. Qaqa's aides said on Friday that the man who shot the cleric after he emerged from prayers was being held in custody.

Qaqa had thousands of followers and operated in the mysterious world of Islamist movements in Aleppo, a once liberal trading hub that has become more religious in recent years.

He had called for jihad, or holy war, to counter U.S. policies against Syria. Experts say he had toned down his rhetoric lately and become less active.

Qaqa disappeared from Aleppo last year. He returned this year and became head of a religious school. He led prayers at a mosque in the northern part of the city.

"I challenge anyone to prove that I had ever called for unlawful resistance or indiscriminate violence against any country," Qaqa once said.

Syrian writer Shaban Aboud said Qaqa was virtually unknown before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that removed Saddam Hussein from power and ushered sectarian strife.

The Syrian government is accused by Washington and the pro-U.S. government in Baghdad of helping foreign fighters behind sectarian killings and attacks on U.S. soldiers.

Damascus denies helping rebels. Syria has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963 and is a tightly controlled country.