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Top U.S. intelligence officials confirm al Qaida role in Syria

WASHINGTON — Al Qaida's Iraqi affiliate appears to have infiltrated Syrian opposition groups and was likely responsible for recent suicide bombings in Damascus and the industrial capital of Aleppo, senior U.S. intelligence officials told Congress Thursday.

"We believe that al Qaida in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria," Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It was the first time that a top U.S. official publicly confirmed the involvement of al Qaida in Iraq, or AQI, in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, which began nearly a year ago as peaceful protests for an end to his family's four-decade-long rule.

Clapper's comments came one week after a McClatchy report quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying that AQI was responsible for suicide bombings in Damascus in December and January, and was believed to be behind two strikes last week in Aleppo. The four attacks targeted intelligence and security compounds and killed at least 70 people.

The U.S. officials told McClatchy that AQI was encouraged to become involved in Syria by Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian extremist who assumed the leadership of al Qaida's Pakistan-based core group after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden in May.

Clapper said that AQI extremists appear to have secretly joined some of the groups of civilians and military deserters — known collectively as the Free Syrian Army — who've taken up arms in response to the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

A "disturbing phenomenon that we've seen recently, apparently, is the presence of extremists who have infiltrated the opposition groups," Clapper said. "The opposition groups in many cases may not be aware they are there."

The bombings in Damascus and Aleppo "had all the earmarks of an al Qaida-like attack," he said.

Army Gen. Ronald Burgess, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that it doesn't appear that AQI has summoned militants from elsewhere to join its fighters in Syria.

"What we have not assessed yet is whether there would be what I call a clarion call to outsiders coming in, to augment," Burgess said. "We haven't seen much of that up to this time, so basically the team that's on the ground is playing with what it has."

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