Bomb blast rocks Damascus as OIC set to suspend Syria
DAMASCUS, Syria (UPDATED) - A massive bomb blast rocked the heart of Damascus on Wednesday, August 15, as pressure mounted on the regime, with world's largest pan-Islamic bloc poised to suspend Syria over the unrelenting violence.
The United States also accused Iran of setting up a pro-regime militia in Syria as Washington increasingly ties the conflict that is now in its 18th month to interference by its long-time foe Tehran.
A bomb ripped through a petrol tanker outside the Damascus hotel used by the UN observer mission in Syria and a military headquarters, state television reported, adding that three people were wounded.
The Free Syrian Army claimed the attack, saying it targeted a regular operational meeting of military officers and members of the pro-government shabiha militia.
Television footage showed the tanker with its rear-end blown out and the smoldering and blackened wreckage of at least one other vehicle, as firefighters doused the flames and security forces set up a cordon at the area.
It was the latest in a series of bomb blasts that have rocked the city since President Bashar al-Assad's regime launched a brutal crackdown on dissent in March last year, including an attack that killed three top security chiefs.
Meanwhile, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, was poised to suspend Syria at an emergency summit on Wednesday in a move opposed by Iran, a staunch ally of Assad's increasingly embattled regime.
The move by the OIC is aimed at further isolating Assad's regime over a conflict that activists say has now claimed over 23,000 lives, but its effect is seen as largely symbolic.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League last year over its crackdown on the Arab Spring-inspired uprising that Assad has characterized as a plot by Western and rival powers to overthrow his regime.
A final draft statement says Syria should be suspended over "the obstinacy of the Syrian authorities in following the military option" to solve the crisis and the failure of a UN-Arab League peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan.
It demands that Assad's regime "immediately end all acts of violence" while defending Syria's "unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity."
Tensions have been simmering for months between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-dominated Iran as Syria has emerged as another arena for the longtime rivalry between the two regional heavyweights.
'Iran trying to train a militia within Syria'
Iran's archfoe the United States accused Tehran on Tuesday of setting up a militia in Syria and urged the Islamic republic to stay out of the conflict.
"It is obvious that Iran has been playing a larger role in Syria in many ways," US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a press conference Tuesday.
He said the United States has evidence that Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards were "trying to develop, trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime."
"We are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us. We do not think that Iran ought to play that role at this moment in time, that's dangerous... It's adding to the killing that's going on in Syria."
Further undermining the regime, Syria's former prime minister, the highest profile government figure to defect, said Tuesday that the power structure was disintegrating.
"The Syrian regime only controls 30 percent of Syria's territory. It has collapsed militarily, economically and morally," Riad Hijab told a news conference in Amman.
Hijab fled to Jordan last week, the latest in a string of defections from the Alawite-led government of Assad, who has characterizing the conflict as a crucial battle for the very future of majority Sunni Muslim country.
The United States, which has imposed a raft of tough sanctions to try to force Assad's departure, reacted by lifting an asset freeze imposed on Hijab in a move it said was aimed at encouraging similar defections.
Western policymakers hope a wave of defections will bring the collapse of the autocratic government, ending a conflict that seems to be in stalemate with the international community deeply divided over what action to take.
China's top state newspaper accused Western powers of hampering international efforts to end the conflict, as a senior Damascus envoy visited Beijing for talks with political leaders.
China and Russia have repeatedly used their vetoes to scuttle UN Security Council resolutions aimed at tackling the violence, putting them at loggerheads with fellow permanent members the United States, Britain and France.
"Some Western countries have never given up the goal of 'regime change' in Syria and constantly reinforced their support for the anti-government forces," said a commentary in the People's Daily.
On the ground, activists reported renewed shelling in rebel-held districts of the key northern hub of Aleppo, seen as pivotal to the outcome of the rebellion, and further security raids in Damascus.
The unrelenting violence has raised international concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian situation with over one million people displaced inside Syria and at least another 157,600 fleeing to neighboring countries. - Agence France-Presse