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Al-Qaida-linked group ramps up regional violence

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The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and another powerful al-Qaida-linked group in Syria, the Nusra Front, operate as independent groups. Both, however, have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Not much is known about the operational activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but it is believed to get its funding from wealthy Gulf donors and internal sources, including smuggling and extortion, and its recruits are mainly from Iraq’s Sunni heartland as well as foreign fighters from al-Qaida’s networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its ultimate goal is to establish a Islamist state in the region, regardless of current borders.

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Sunnis across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, many of whom have centuries-old tribal affiliations spanning the long and porous border, feel they have been marginalized by their respective governments, which they see as too closely allied to Shiite powerhouse Iran.

"What we’re seeing in Iraq is really longstanding sectarian tensions that we all are very familiar with, and they’re being exploited, quite frankly, by terrorists operating in Syria. These are the same groups," U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Monday.

In an audio recording released on the Internet Wednesday, a spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant vowed to crush the rebel factions fighting in Syria and declared war on Shiites in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Despite the burst of strength across the region, global intelligence company Stratfor predicted a bleak future for the group.

"For all the dedication and motivation of its fighters, ISIL simply does not have the manpower or the force to overcome its innumerable enemies and achieve its end goals of establishing its version of an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq," it said in an analysis.

The infighting in Syria, although brewing for a long time, has been linked to the upcoming peace conference in Geneva.

Imad Salamey, a professor in international relations at the Lebanese American University, said the Syrian opposition has realized that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is a major liability — not just for the image of the opposition but also for turning Syrians against the opposition.

He said the Syria war is forcing changes and power struggles that will have a major and lasting regional effect.

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"The entire political order of the Middle East is being renegotiated," he said.


Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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