DAMASCUS, Syria—Armed gunmen believed to be Islamic militants attacked the U.S. Embassy in Syria's capital Tuesday with gunfire and two explosives-packed cars in a rare instance of extremist violence in this authoritarian and largely secular Arab country.
Syrian security personnel killed three of the attackers, and the assault failed to breach the embassy's security perimeter. One Syrian security guard was killed and more than a dozen people were injured, Syrian officials said. No Americans were hurt.
Witnesses said four assailants shouting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") assaulted the embassy at about 10 a.m. local time, exchanging heavy gunfire with Syrian guards.
Syria's interior minister, Gen. Bassam Abdul Majid, told state-run television that the assailants tried to detonate two cars full of explosives next to the embassy. One car exploded, but another one failed to detonate, he said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Syrian officials implied that the attack was the work of a militant group known as Jund al Sham, Arabic for "Soldiers of Syria." Little is known about the group, which is thought to have links to the Iraqi branch of the al-Qaida terrorist network.
The attack underscored the complexities of a region that the Bush administration has sought to divide into supporters and enemies of terrorism. Syria has long supported Hezbollah, Hamas and several Palestinian terrorist groups, but one of al-Qaida's aims is ousting secular regimes such as Syria's and replacing them with Islamic rule.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Syrian security forces for helping thwart the attack.
"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," said Rice, who was visiting Canada.
Syria, run by a secular Baathist Party similar to Saddam Hussein's, fought a virtual civil war with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, and thousands died when government forces leveled the city of Hama, a militant stronghold, in 1982.
In recent years, there have been signs of a reborn radical Islamic movement in Syria, and some Syrians have crossed the border with Iraq to join attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces there.
Still, it remained unclear how a plot could be hatched and carried out in daylight in downtown Damascus, given Syria's pervasive security services.
Syria's embassy in Washington issued a statement condemning the attack, but blamed such incidents on U.S. policy. "It is regrettable that U.S. policies in the Middle East have fueled extremism, terrorism and anti-U.S. sentiment," the statement said.
U.S.-Syrian relations have been tense since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which prompted Washington to recall the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey.
The wounded included a Syrian embassy guard, a policeman and a security employee of the embassy, seven workers from the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment who were in the area conducting repairs, two Iraqis and a Chinese citizen, Syria's news agency reported.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attack was bungled and didn't bear the hallmarks of al-Qaida's careful planning.
The embassy in Damascus doesn't meet the State Department's highest security standards, which were imposed after attacks on the U.S. embassies in Beirut in the 1980s and East Africa in 1998. Nevertheless, the Department issued a statement on Tuesday calling the embassy "one of our most heavily defended facilities with multiple physical and technical upgrades".
The low building, surrounded by a whitewashed wall and an 8-foot-high fence and guarded by U.S. Marines, sits on a residential thoroughfare.
The embassy, in a message to U.S. citizens in Syria, said it would be closed on Wednesday. "At present, Americans should maintain a very low profile," it said.
Shortly after the attack, a large plume of smoke could be seen coming from the area surrounding the embassy compound. The charred remains of a car could be seen parked outside of the embassy, along with a trail of blood on a street near the embassy compound.
Syrian security promptly cordoned off the street, forbidding journalists from entering. The area is home to other missions, including the Chinese, Italian and Iraqi embassies, and a school. Mothers were briefly allowed to pass the barricade in order to pick up their children.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the attackers used improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, packed into the two vehicles. In addition, small IEDs were found in the vicinity of the embassy outside the second, unexploded car, he said.
Casey said he had no information on who was responsible or their motives.
As in Egypt, Jordan and other Arab nations, the Muslim Brotherhood poses the biggest challenge to the Assad regime in Syria. But the Brotherhood, the largest and most respected Islamist movement in the Middle East, in recent years has focused on building its power by participating in elections, prompting complaints from radicals that it's grown too moderate.
(Roumani, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Damascus; Strobel reported from Washington. Hannah Allam in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this article.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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