By BEN HUBBARD
MARCH 11, 2017
Middle East By REUTERS 00:56
Deadly Explosion in Damascus
A double suicide bombing in Damascus killed dozens of people and injured others on Saturday.
By REUTERS. Photo by Louai Beshara/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A double bombing near Shiite shrines often visited by foreign pilgrims in Damascus, Syria, killed at least 40 people on Saturday, shattering the capital’s efforts to isolate itself from the war raging elsewhere in the country. Many of the dead were from neighboring Iraq.
The Syrian state news service, SANA, said militants set off two explosive charges near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, just south of the Old City.
Syria’s interior minister, Mohammed al-Shaar, who visited the site after the blasts, said they had killed 40 people and wounded 120.
Other reports cited a higher death toll. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which opposes the Syrian government and monitors the conflict from Britain with the help of contacts in Syria, said that one of the blasts was from a suicide bomber and that the nature of the second was unclear. It put the death toll at 46.
The spokesman for Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Jamal, said the attacks killed more than 40 Iraqi pilgrims and wounded 120.
The Iraqi government said it was sending medical teams to Damascus to help care for the wounded and airplanes to transport them home.
Video from the blast sites showed large buses with their windows blown out and bodies peppered with shrapnel holes, as well as blood and scattered shoes in the street nearby.
The attacks were a blow to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has sought to ensure quiet in the capital while war rages elsewhere in the country.
As Syria’s war enters its seventh year, Mr. Assad’s forces have rolled back rebel advances and consolidated their grip on Damascus.
That has led to a rise in the number of Shiite pilgrims arriving from abroad to visit the city’s sacred shrines, from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but there are many militants in Syria who aim both to kill Shiites and to undermine Mr. Assad’s grip on the capital. They include the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda and the jihadists of the Islamic State, both of which are Sunni and consider Shiites apostates.
Since neither group holds significant territory near the site of the attacks, they point to a major security breach.
Last year, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a suicide attack south of Damascus near the Sayeda Zeinab shrine, which is revered by Shiites.
Also Saturday, Mr. Assad said in an interview with the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV that his military planned to target the city of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, but that any foreign troops entering Syria without permission would be considered “invaders.”
Kurdish-led forces backed by the United States are also advancing on Raqqa.
When asked how he felt about President Trump, Mr. Assad said he was optimistic because Mr. Trump had said that he intended to step up the fight against the Islamic State.
“I said since the beginning that this is a promising approach to what’s happening in Syria and in Iraq, because we live in the same area and we face the same enemy,” Mr. Assad said.
He added that as of yet he has no direct lines of communication with the American president.
Omar Al-Jawoshy and Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, Iraq.