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Al Qaeda’s involvement could further fuel the sectarian tensions that the uprising has already stoked. Al Qaeda’s supporters are largely Sunni Muslim extremists.

Syria’s military and political leadership is stacked heavily with members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad and the ruling elite belong. The Alawite leaders of Syria are closely allied with Shiite Iran.

Sunnis are the majority in the country of 22 million and make up the backbone of the opposition.

A suspected al Qaeda presence creates new obstacles for the U.S., its Western allies and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help push Assad from power. If al Qaeda does interfere, it may also rally Syrian religious minorities, fearful of Sunni radicalism, to get behind the regime.

The blasts also raised questions about how suicide car bombers were able to penetrate high-security areas in Damascus. Since the first suicide bombings struck the capital in December, the government has taken exceptional measures around state security and other government institutions and ministries, putting up thick concrete blast walls and checkpoints and guards checking drivers’ IDs.

Bassma Kodmani, a Paris-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said she doubted the armed groups trying to bring Assad down by force, such as the rebel Free Syrian Army, have the capacity to carry out such attacks on security institutions in the capital.

“I don’t think any of the opposition forces or the Free Syrian Army has the capacity to do such an operation to target these buildings because they are fortresses,” she said by telephone. “They are very well guarded. There is no way anyone can penetrate them without having strong support and complicity from inside the security apparatus.”

The rebel Free Syrian Army, the most powerful armed opposition force, has appealed for the international community to send weapons to help it fight the regime, but so far, no countries are heeding the call. The U.S. and others have not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even more bloody and prolonged battle.

Though the Syrian uprising began as mostly peaceful protests, it has becoming increasingly militarized, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

An Interior Ministry statement tied the latest explosions to “the recent escalation by regional and international parties, and their open calls for sending weapons to Syria.”

The morning attacks caused panic on the streets. Shooting broke out soon after the blasts and sent residents and others who had gathered in the area fleeing, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.

The last major suicide bombing was on Feb. 10, when twin blasts struck security compounds in the government stronghold of Aleppo in northern Syria, killing 28 people. Damascus has seen three suicide previous bombings since December, hitting intelligence and security buildings.

The government uses the attack to reinforce its claim that this is not a popular uprising, blaming foreign extremists and gangs trying to destroy the country.

In recent weeks, Syrian forces have waged a series of heavy offensives against the main strongholds of the opposition — Homs in the center, Idlib in the north and Daraa in the south.

The Local Coordination Committees, a key activist group, said 22 people were killed across the country Saturday, including eight in the northwestern city of Raqqa where clashes were reported between the military and army defectors, and five in Idlib.

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