- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top U.S. intelligence officials told Congress on Thursday that al Qaeda of Iraq was likely behind a series of bombings against the Syrian regime in recent months.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said bombings against security and intelligence targets in Damascus and Aleppo bear “all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda-like attack,” leading the U.S. intelligence community to believe the Iraqi militant branch is extending its reach into Syria. Al Qaeda of Iraq is one of al Qaeda’s largest regional affiliates.

Mr. Clapper added that Syrian opposition groups may have been infiltrated by al Qaeda, likely without their knowledge. He said the lack of a unified opposition group could leave a power vacuum that extremists could fill if the Syrian government falls, a potential development he called “troubling,” because Syria has an extensive network of chemical weapons sites.

Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, added that it appears “the al-Qaeda-like attacks” likely were caused by elements already inside the country and that the U.S. intelligence community had not yet detected “a clarion call to outsiders” to join the cause.

He made no mention of the video released by core al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri over the weekend, calling on Muslims to support Syrian rebels.

The officials also told Congress that if Iran is attacked over its alleged nuclear weapons program, it could respond by closing the Strait of Hormuz to ships and launch missiles at regional U.S. forces and allies.

Gen. Burgess told senators Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict.

Mr. Clapper said it’s “technically feasible” that Tehran could produce a nuclear weapon in one or two years, if its leaders decide to build one, “but, practically, not likely.”

He said recent diplomatic outreach by Iran to European diplomats could indicate that officials there are reconsidering the program.

Both men said they did not believe Israel has decided to strike Iran. Mr. Clapper said he would be meeting with Israeli officials soon to discuss the matter.

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