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Al-Qaida group takes role in Syria

| Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, 7:42 p.m.

QALAT AL MUDIQ, Syria — When the group Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for car and suicide bombings in Damascus that killed dozens of people in January, many of Syria's revolutionaries claimed that the organization was a creation of the Syrian government, designed to discredit those who opposed the regime of President Bashar Assad and to hide the regime's own brutal tactics.

Nearly a year later, however, Jabhat al Nusra, which U.S. officials believe has links to al-Qaida, has become essential to the front-line operations of the rebels fighting to topple Assad.

Not only does the group still conduct suicide bombings that have killed hundreds, but it has proven to be critical to the rebels' military advance. In battle after battle across the country, Nusra and similar groups do the heaviest fighting.

The prominence of Nusra in the rebel cause worries U.S. and other Western officials, who say its operations rely on the same people and tactics that fueled al-Qaida in Iraq — an assertion borne out by interviews with Nusra members in Syria.

Among Nusra fighters are many Syrians who say they fought with al-Qaida in Iraq, which waged a violent campaign against the U.S. presence in that country and is still blamed for suicide and car bombings that have killed hundreds of Iraqis since the U.S. troops left a year ago.

The group's prominence makes clear the dilemma of Syria's revolutionaries, as well as those who might provide support to them. Though members of Nusra operate independently of other rebel groups that have taken up arms, it is increasingly clear that their operations are closely coordinated with more secular rebels.

Some Syrians said Nusra's importance is a result of the West's failure to support those secular rebels. But the closeness of the coordination between Nusra and other rebels makes it difficult to support one without empowering the other.

Nusra leaders argue that the West should not fear their rise. “The West must not fear Islam — when Islam is in power, all people will live peacefully,” said Iyad al Sheikh Mahmoud, the leader of a recently formed Jabhat al-Nusra group.

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