- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria | A brazen car bombing near Syrian security offices killed 17 people Saturday, the deadliest attack in decades that raised questions about the regime’s usually strong grip as the country tries to boost its international profile.

The explosion came only hours after Syria’s foreign minister held a rare meeting in New York with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

State-run television said a car packed with an estimated 440 pounds of explosives blew up on a road on the capital’s southern outskirts, wounding dozens and shattering car and apartment windows. The charred booby-trapped car sat in the street near a primary school.

The blast knocked down part of a 13-foot-high wall surrounding a security service complex that houses several buildings in the Sidi Kadad neighborhood.

Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid called the bombing a “terrorist act.” He said all the victims were civilians, although at least one of the injured was a traffic policeman.

Officials provided no other details of the attack, which was the worst since a truck bomb killed dozens of people in the mid-1980s.

“We cannot accuse any party. There are ongoing investigations that will lead us to those who carried it out,” Mr. Abdul-Majid told state television.

Serious attacks are rare in Syria, a tightly controlled country where the government uses heavy-handed tactics to suppress dissent and keep stability.

But the country is also home to Palestinian extremists and is a close ally of the Shi’ite Muslim militant group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Washington accuses Syria of being a state sponsor of terrorism and allowing Muslim militants to use its territory to cross into Iraq.

Syria denies that, arguing that it has an interest in fighting Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda. The secular regime of President Bashar Assad has been battling Muslim militants blamed for a string of smaller bombings and attacks on the government and diplomatic missions in recent years.

Though Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a destabilizing force in the Middle East, Damascus has been trying in recent months to change its image and end years of global seclusion.

Mr. Assad has pursued indirect peace talks with Israel, mediated by Turkey, and says he wants direct talks next year. Syria also has agreed to establish its first formal diplomatic ties with Lebanon, a neighbor it used to dominate both politically and militarily, and says it has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of militants into Iraq.

Ibrahim Bayram, a political analyst at Lebanon’s leading newspaper, An-Nahar, speculated Saturday’s bombing was the result of a “tacit confrontation” between the Syrian government and al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants after Damascus tightened its long desert border with Iraq.

“For months, the Syrians have been preparing to face such attacks after they decided to stop militants from crossing its border into Iraq,” said Mr. Bayram, whose newspaper often takes an anti-Syria line.

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