REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Thousands of mourners attending a funeral Saturday for the 44 people reported killed a day earlier in two suicide car bombings in the Syrian capital, Damascus, cheered President Bashar Assad and denounced his critics.
Syrian television showed the flag-draped coffins lined up on the floor of the 8th century Omayyad Mosque, which was filled with mourners. Others rallied outside, chanting, "We sacrifice our souls and blood for you Bashar" and "God, Syria and Bashar only."
The attacks Friday were a worrying escalation in the nine-month uprising against Assad’s regime, a conflict that has already pushed Syria to the brink of civil war.
Syrian officials pointed a finger at Al Qaeda, saying the twin blasts targeting intelligence agencies were evidence upholding the regime's long-held contention that armed terrorists are behind the unrest. Opposition groups accused the government of orchestrating the attacks to divert attention from a bloody crackdown that the United Nations says has claimed more than 5,000 lives since the start of major protests in March.
The bombings happened the day after an advance team from the Arab League arrived in Syria to prepare for an observer mission to monitor a regional peace initiative calling for a withdrawal of security forces from the streets, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
The head of the mission, Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabi, told reporters in Cairo that he would leave for Syria on Saturday. About 150 monitors are expected to arrive by the end of the week and fan out across the country. Dabi expressed confidence that “events such as yesterday's blasts in Damascus will not affect the mission.”
But the government’s opponents are skeptical that the league’s observers will be allowed free access to trouble spots and detention centers. The Syrian National Council, the country’s most prominent opposition bloc, urged league officials to visit the central city of Homs, where they fear a massive assault is being prepared against neighborhoods that have been at the epicenter of the uprising.
Violence has been escalating in recent months as the government sends troops and tanks into residential areas and army defectors turn their guns on Assad's security forces.
Government forces killed as many as 38 people Saturday, including 25 in the Homs region, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that organizes protests and reports on the violence.
The government lays blame for the bloodshed on what it describes as foreign-backed armed gangs, which it says have killed more than 2,000 security personnel since the start of the uprising.
Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria, making it almost impossible to verify the accounts of either side.
At the funeral in Damascus, a prominent Muslim cleric, Said Ramadan Boudi, said he hoped the bombings had removed "he veils from the eyes of the Arab League representatives so that they see who is the killer and who is killed."
He blamed the Syrian National Council’s leader and other activists for the attacks, saying "that was the gift of Burhan Ghalion and his comrades to Syria."
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Mourners at the Omayyad Mosque pray during a funeral for the bombing victims. Credit: Muzaffar Salman / Associated Press