US grateful as Syria foils attack on embassy raid

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The Independent Online

Four men shouting Islamic slogans attacked the heavily fortified American embassy in Damascus yesterday, in which three of them were killed and one was captured after being seriously wounded. Their vehicle, rigged with explosives and gas canisters, failed to explode. One Syrian security guard was killed, but no Americans were hurt.

The attackers, armed with automatic rifles and grenades, were never likely to succeed against the embassy's eight-foot high walls. At least 11 other people, including a senior Chinese diplomat hit in the face by shrapnel, were injured in fighting which took place in the embassy quarter of Damascus.

"I saw two men in plain clothes and armed with grenades and automatic weapons," said Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Syrian political commentator who was in the area. "They ran towards the compound shouting religious slogans while firing their automatic rifles."

The assault is a further sign of escalating tension across the Middle East because of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, and heavy loss of life in Gaza.

The attack appeared amateur and did not bear the hallmarks of a well-organised operation, with the use of massive quantities of explosives aimed at blasting through fortifications. There was no immediate claim of responsibility but an Al-Qa'ida offshoot group called Jund al-Sham was suspected, said the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. The radical fundamentalist group has been blamed for several attacks in Syria in recent years, he claimed.

The gunmen had little chance of getting away as the US embassy is in the heavily defended Rawsa district of Damascus, which is home to many senior government officials.

The US, which has been in confrontation with Syria over Iraq and Lebanon, expressed gratitude to Damascus for its swift response and suggested the two countries could turn a page in their troubled relationship.

"Syrian officials came to the aid of the Americans. The US government is grateful for the assistance the Syrians provided in going after the attackers," said the White House spokesman, Tony Snow. "We are hoping they will become an ally and make the choice of fighting against terrorists." The United States claims that Syria is a sponsor of terrorism.

Several years ago, Washington appeared to be successfully squeezing the Syrian government from the east and west, but the worsening crisis in Iraq and the failure of Israel to defeat Hizbollah in Lebanon means that the US position is now much weaker.

Television footage of the scene showed a van packed with gas canisters and detonators taped to them, as well as bloodstains on the pavement and several damaged vehicles, including a white, bullet-riddled car that a truck was preparing to haul away. The Syrian Interior Minister, Bassam Abdel Majid, said that it was a "terrorist operation".

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said that it was too early to know who was behind the attack. She also praised Syrian actions and expressed her condolences over the guard's death. "I do think that the Syrians reacted to this attack in a way that helped to secure our people, and we very much appreciate that," she told a news conference in Canada.

In the late 1970s, the Syrian government came under sustained attack from Islamic groups which used suicide bombs and were fiercely repressed by the government. In recent months, there have been a few sporadic clashes between the Syrian security forces and Islamic groups. The United States and sections of the Iraqi government see Syria as being the conduit for men and weapons to the anti-American resistance in Iraq.

The assault in Damascus, however ineffectual, will be used by the White House to show that America is under threat from terrorism and shows the all-embracing nature of the conspiracy against the US.

In his highly partisan speech commemorating the attacks of September 11 2001, President George Bush justified the war in Iraq by making it the central part of the war on terror. "If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons," he said. "We are in a war that will set the course for this new century and determine the destiny of millions across the world."