"We desperately need to partner with him (Maliki) to go after al Qaida. We think we can," the official said. "Because these guys are already spreading. They did the two attacks in Damascus."
The first Damascus attack occurred Dec. 23, when suicide bombers detonated cars packed with explosives outside intelligence agency compounds in the Syrian capital. At least 44 people were killed and more than 160 wounded.
Then, on Jan. 6, at least 26 people were killed and dozens injured in a bombing against a second intelligence agency compound.
As regime forces continued pummeling the opposition stronghold of Homs on Friday, two suicide bombers driving explosives-packed vehicles attacked security compounds in Aleppo, killing at least 28 people. It was the first significant violence to strike the commercial center, which has largely remained loyal to Assad.
The Assad regime blamed all of the attacks on al Qaida, citing them as proof that it is fighting terrorists and not a pro-democracy movement. In each case, opposition activists accused the regime of staging the bombings to discredit their movement and undermine the support it's receiving from the United States, European powers and the Arab League.
The U.S. officials said that AQI and Zawahiri apparently see Syria's turmoil as an opportunity to reassert themselves after the battering the core group has taken with the death of bin Laden and the killing and capture of key operatives in Pakistan's tribal areas.
They "are seeing space, seeing a vacuum, and opportunity to bounce back and they are taking advantage of it," said the first U.S. official.
AQI operatives may also think that Syria offers them the possibility of challenging Zawahiri and his group for leadership of the network.
"We never had to worry about the al Qaida in Iraq people, bad as they were in Iraq, providing real competition to the main al Qaida force," he said. "But that can happen. Because the main al Qaida force has been decimated in Pakistan, and these guys may get a new lease on life."
A third U.S. official said that AQI has been able to operate in Syria because it still maintains in that country networks that it used to infiltrate foreign extremists into western Iraq to fight U.S. forces.
"This is opportunism, plain and simple," he said.
(Roy Gutman of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
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