DAMASCUS (AFP) — Syrian security forces were hunting Sunday for the culprits behind a car bombing that killed 17 people in an attack analysts said could have been aimed at splitting Syria's alliance with Iran or deterring it from becoming too friendly with the West.
Saturday's bombing near a Shiite shrine in Damascus, one of the deadliest attacks in two decades, drew worldwide condemnation, including from the United States which has repeatedly accused Syria of fuelling unrest in Iraq.
A car packed with 200 kilos (440 pounds) of explosives blew up near a security checkpoint on a road to Damascus airport in what Interior Minister General Bassam Abdel Majid called "a terrorist act."
All the casualties were civilians, he told state television, adding: "A counter-terrorist unit is trying to track down the perpetrators."
Saturday's blast was the deadliest since a spate of attacks in the 1980s blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood left nearly 150 dead.
It came at a time that Syria has launched indirect peace talks with archfoe Israel, moved to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon and opened the door to improved relations with the West.
But Syria has also witnessed the assassinations of a top Hezbollah commander and a Syrian general this year.
The Arab League condemned the bombing as a "a criminal operation that terrorised those who felt secure, but it won't achieve its criminal goal."
Ryad Kahwaji, a Dubai-based analyst, said no group could be above suspicion because of Syria's "contradictory regional position.
"An ally of Iran, at the same time it is holding indirect peace talks with Israel on condition -- according to Israel -- that it distances itself from Tehran," he told AFP.
"Damascus as a consequence is trying to reassure Tehran that the peace will not be at the expense of their alliance," Kahwaji said. "This could be a message to Syria to abandon its alliance with Iran."
Razzouk Ghawi, a Syrian political analyst, said he believed the attack was a bid to torpedo improving relations between Damascus and Western capitals.
"The latest positive political developments in Syria's relations, notably with France, strengthen Damascus's international position and this displeases Israel."
The attack, rare in a country known for its iron-fisted security, struck the teeming Shiite neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab.
The district draws tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon each year to pray at the tomb of Zeinab, daughter of Shiite martyr Ali and granddaughter of the Muslim prophet Mohammed.
"It's a US-backed Israeli conspiracy to destabilise the Syrian regime and create enough chaos to produce an opposition that would develop and grow under the sponsorship of Israel and the United States," Hashem al-Khaledi said in Jordan's Al-Dustur newspaper, blaming the Mossad spy agency.
"They are seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who is seen by the United States and Israel as an obstacle facing their schemes in the region."
Al-Watan, which is close to the Syrian government, said: "The list is long of those who refuse to let Syria live in security and peace. It begins with Israel, passes via the information services and militias deployed in (neighbouring) countries and ends with Islamist groups which interpret religion poorly."
Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah condemned the "atrocious attack," saying it serves only "the enemy of the 'ummah' (nation) in creating chaos and instability in the region."
Top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh, who was on Israeli and US most wanted lists for a string of attacks in the 1980s and 1990s, was killed in a Damascus car bombing in February.
In August, Syria confirmed the assassination of army general Mohammed Sleiman, described in Arab media as the regime's liaison with Hezbollah.
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