Iraqi al Qaeda and Syria militants announce merger

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In an editorial published Tuesday in the Washington Post, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that a “Syria controlled in whole or part by al-Qaeda and its affiliates — an outcome that grows more likely by the day — would be more dangerous to both our countries than anything we’ve seen up to now.”

Iraqi officials say the jihadi groups are sharing three military training compounds, logistics, intelligence and weapons as they grow in strength around the Syria-Iraq border, particularly in a sprawling region called al-Jazeera, which they are trying to turn into a border sanctuary they can both exploit. It could serve as a base of operations to strike either side of the border.

Baghdad officials said last week they have requested U.S. drone strikes against the fighters in Iraqi territory. A U.S. official confirmed that elements within the Iraqi government had inquired about drone strikes. But the official said the U.S. was waiting to respond until the top level of Iraqi leadership makes a formal request, which has not happened yet.

All officials spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to give official statements to the media.

Eastern Syria and western Iraq have a predominantly Sunni Muslim population like most of the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The Baghdad government is dominated by Shiites, who are a majority in Iraq.

The announcement came hours after a suicide car bomber struck Monday in the financial heart of Syria’s capital, killing at least 15 people, damaging the nearby central bank.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack but such operations were claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra in the past.

State-run Al-Ikhbariyeh TV station quoted Central Bank Governor Adib Mayaleh as saying the bank returned to work as usual at 1 p.m. Tuesday (1000 GMT) “despite the destruction” caused by the bombing.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry sent two letters to the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council protesting the Damascus explosion, blaming “terrorists” who “receive financial and logistic support from regional states and other foreign nations.”

The Syrian National Coalition, the country’s main opposition group, blamed Assad’s regime for the bombing, saying “the intent is clearly to terrorize the people.” It said the area where the explosion occurred is heavily-guarded.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, activists reported violence in different parts of Syria.

State-run news agency SANA said one person was killed and two others wounded when mortar shells struck the upscale Damascus district of Kafar Souseh. Two other mortars crashed on the roofs of residential buildings in the al-Qassaa district, causing material damage but no casualties.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported air raids on suburbs of the capital Damascus as well as the northern province of Raqqa and Idlib.

The Observatory said that Ali Matar, a local rebel commander in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, was shot dead in the eastern city of Mayadeen. It did not say who was behind the attack but added that some of his guards were wounded in the shooting.

Syria’s crisis, which began in March 2011 with protests calling for Assad’s ouster, then evolved into a civil war. The U.N. says more than 70,000 have been killed in the conflict.

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