BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of the most formidable rebel group in Syria pledged allegiance Wednesday to al-Qaida but distanced himself from a claim that his Islamic extremist faction had merged with the terror network's Iraqi branch.
Al-Qaida in Iraq said Tuesday that it had joined forces with Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nusra Front — the most effective force among the disparate rebel factions fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. It said they had formed a new alliance called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Talk of an alliance raised fears in Iraq, where intelligence officials said recently that increased cooperation was already evident in a number of deadly attacks. And in Syria, a stronger Nusra Front would only further complicate the battlefield where Western powers have been trying to funnel weapons, training and aid toward more secular rebel groups and army defectors.
But the leader of Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, threw doubt on the merger. In a statement posted on militant websites, he said he was not consulted ahead of time and only heard about the union through the media.
He did not, however, deny the two groups had merged, and remained vague on the point, only saying that the announcement was premature. He said his group will continue to use Jabhat al-Nusra as its name.
"The banner of the Front will remain unchanged despite our pride in the banner of the State and those who carried it and sacrificed and shed their blood for it," he said in a reference to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The message appeared to be, at least in part, an effort by Nusra Front to reassure Syrians that the group remains dedicated to the uprising to oust Assad and is not beholden to non-Syrian interests despite its pledge of fealty to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
"What you saw from the Front of its defense of your religion, honors, and blood, and its good qualities with you and the fighting groups, will remain as you experienced it," al-Golani said in remarks addressed to the Syrian people. "The announcement of the pledge of allegiance will not change anything in its (Nusra's) policy."
Earlier this week, al-Zawahiri urged Islamic fighters in Syria to unite in their efforts to oust Assad. That may have provided at least part of the impetus for the announced merger with al-Qaida in Iraq, formally known as the Islamic State in Iraq.
The purported unification was announced by ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a 21-minute audio message posted on militant websites late Monday.
In his recording, al-Golani confirmed his group's long-standing, close ties with al-Qaida's Iraqi franchise, and expressed gratitude for what the money and manpower it provided to help get Jabhat al-Nusra off the ground.
Al-Golani's message was first reported by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist websites.
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