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Al Qaeda's Zawahiri calls for war to oust Syria's Assad

In a video message, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Muslims to rally for a war to oust Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

By Elizabeth A. KennedyAssociated Press / February 12, 2012



Beirut

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for the ouster of Syria's "pernicious, cancerous regime," raising fears that Islamist militants will try to exploit an uprising against President Bashar Assad that began with peaceful calls for democratic change but is morphing into a bloody, armed insurgency.

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The regime has long blamed terrorists for the 11-month-old revolt, and Zawahiri's endorsement creates new difficulties for the US, its Western allies and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help force Assad from power. On Sunday, the 22-nation Arab League called for the UN. Security Council to create a joint peacekeeping force for Syria, but Damascus rejected it immediately.

In an eight-minute video message released late Saturday, Zawahri called on Muslims to support Syrian rebels.

"Wounded Syria is still bleeding day after day, and the butcher (Assad) isn't deterred and doesn't stop," said Zawahri, who took over Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces in Pakistan last May. "However, the resistance of our people in Syria is escalating and growing despite all the pains, sacrifices and blood."

Related: Zawahiri takes the reins of Al Qaeda

The United Nations estimates more than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March. But that figure is from January, when the UN stopped counting because it couldn't gather reliable data there anymore.

While many of the anti-government protests sweeping the country remain peaceful, the uprising as a whole has become more violent in recent months as frustrated demonstrators and army defectors take up arms to protect themselves from a steady military assault. An increasing number of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army have launched attacks, killing soldiers and security forces.

Syria now has become one of the deadliest conflicts amid the uprisings in the region that began early last year, and many fear the country of 22 million at the heart of the Arab world is on the verge of a civil war that could spread to neighbors.

A string of suicide attacks have killed dozens of people since late December. The latest, twin bombings in the major northern city of Aleppo, killed at least 28 people on Friday, the government said. Some 70 people were killed in earlier attacks in the capital, Damascus, on Dec. 23 and Jan. 6. All the blasts struck security targets.

Is it Al Qaeda?

No one has taken responsibility for the attacks, but the regime immediately blamed Al Qaeda.

Saturday's statement by Zawahri appears to bolster Assad's accusations, but the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army reject the government's claims entirely. They accuse forces loyal to the regime of setting off the blasts to smear the opposition, terrify people into submission and exploit fears of chaos and sectarian warfare.

For many Syrians, the uncertainty over the future is cause for alarm in a country that has watched neighboring Lebanon and Iraq descend into bloody wars over the years. Syria is a fragile jigsaw puzzle of Middle Eastern backgrounds including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druse, Circassians, Armenians and more.

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