Al-Qaida in Iraq admits links to Syrian jihadist fighters

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters at Taftanaz airbase in January 2013. Many of its Syrian members are seasoned veterans of the Iraq insurgency.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has confirmed its links to a jihadist group fighting in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, saying both are now fighting under the same banner.

Diplomats and intelligence officials view the move as an attempt exploit the battlefield gains of al-Nusra, which has risen in prominence among Syrian militants over the past seven months.

The move to rename both groups was reported on websites used in the past by al-Qaida-aligned militants to post messages. There was no immediate response from al-Nusra, which was last year also prescribed as a terror group by the US, Britain and some European states. The post said the new group would be called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It is unclear if the rebranding will have any practical implications.

The growing role of al-Nusra among the anti-Assad rebels has alarmed western officials and the Arab League and further polarised views on how to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe.

A deteriorating security situation in Iraq is also causing widespread concern, with Sunni groups who were disaffected by the toppling of Saddam Hussein, which led to a Shia-led power-base being formed there, increasingly emboldened by opposition advances in Syria.

An intensified campaign of bombings and assassinations, primarily targeting government, or Shia interests, in and around Baghdad, is believed to be being driven by al-Qaida in Iraq, which has also sent members to fight in Syria.

Many Syrian members of al-Nusra, as well as some foreign militants who have traveled to the country, are seasoned veterans of the Iraq insurgency and sectarian war that followed.

Those interviewed by the Guardian have suggested that while they eschew the ghoulish acts of other members in Iraq, they share the same goals of establishing an Islamic state that would pay no heed to the nation state boundaries of Syria or its neighbours.

Al-Nusra has tried to assert its influence in parts of the north and east of Syria. It is particularly active in Raqqa province which, together with the salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, it last month overran and has since taken tentative steps to establish Islamic rule.While accepted by many as a provider of aid at a time when essential services of state have collapsed, al-Nusra faces a fraught task of establishing itself as a dominant voice in Syrian society.

Rebel leaders in the north have grown increasingly wary of the jihadist group and have vowed to confront it, setting the stage for a new phase of the civil war, which is now into its third year and showing no signs of stopping.

Al-Nusra is widely blamed for car bombings in Damascus, including an attack on Monday that killed around 15 people. It has previously claimed credit for car bombings targeting security buildings in Aleppo.



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