WASHINGTON — Top U.S. intelligence officials pointed to al-Qaida in Iraq on Thursday as the likely culprit behind recent bombings in Syria, the deadliest attacks against the Syrian government in the 11-month uprising.
Though the United States has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, his fall could lead to a power vacuum that al-Qaida's largest regional affiliate or other extremist groups could fill, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress.
That could also allow such groups to help themselves to Syria's vast stockpiles of chemical weapons, he said.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the crisis in Syria has become "that much more serious" and worrisome to the United States as a result of indications that al-Qaida has infiltrated the government's opposition.
"As to just what their role is and how extensive their role is, I think that still remains to be seen," he said.
The comments by Panetta and Clapper in Washington marked a diplomatically dissonant moment of near-agreement between American officials and the Syrian leadership they have called on to step down, after the deaths of thousands of Syrians in the unrest that started during last year's Arab Spring.
journalist dies: New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, died Thursday after slipping into Syria to report on the uprising. Shadid, shot in the West Bank in 2002 and kidnapped for six days in Libya last year, apparently died of an asthma attack, the Times said. Times photographer Tyler Hicks carried his body to Turkey, the newspaper said.