CAIRO - In a heavy blow to Bashar Al-Assad Sunni supporters, a bombing targeting a Damascus mosque has killed Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti, triggering contradictory reactions amid denial of Syria opposition forces.
He was the most important Sunni clerical supporter of the Assad regime, Joshua M. Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Christian Science Monitor on Friday, March 22.
It is a great blow to the regime and the remaining Sunni supporters of the president, the author of the Syria Comment blog, which has tracked the conflict's progression from a peaceful political uprising to a sectarian-tinged civil war, added.
Al-Bouti; Sunni Pro-Assad Scholar
A suicide bomber yesterday killed dozens, including sheikh al-Bouti, when he penetrated the regime's ring of steel in Damascus.
Described as deeply shocking to both sides in the conflict, the bombing attack occurred on Thursday evening, at Damascus Iman Mosque, killing at least 42 people, including sheikh Al-Bouti, and wounding 84 others.
As a Sunni, Bouti's support for the predominantly Alawite Assad regime carried substantial weight, especially amid the predominantly Sunni-led uprising against the regime.
He is also the most senior religious leader to be killed in the conflict, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives.State television said "terrorists", a term often used to describe the rebels, were behind the attack.
President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday offered deep condolences over the death of al-Bouti, saying he was "a real man who expressed the real voice of Islam" and was martyred while instructing people about "goodness and the real religion."
Al-Assad also slammed the killers of al-Bouti as attempting to silence "the voice of Islam and the light of faith" in the face of "the forces of dark and the takfiri extremist thinking," SANA new agency added.
"And this is a promise from the Syrian people, and I am one of them, that your blood, that of your grandson and the blood of all today's martyrs and all martyrs of the homeland will not go in vain," said President al-Assad.
He also pledged that "we will adhere to your thought as we are fighting to eliminate their obscurantist and takfiri thinking until we purge our country of them."
While Assad blamed Syrian opposition for killing al-Bouti, opposition figures denied targeting him, trading accusations with the Syrian president on the responsibility of the scholar's death.
"This is a crime, by any measure, that is completely rejected," Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition was quoted by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Whoever did this was a criminal, Khatib said. And we suspect it was the regime."
Protesters' spokesman Loay Maqdad said units associated with the opposition's Free Syrian Army were not behind the attack.
"We in the Free Syrian Army do not take any responsibility for this operation, he told Al Arabiya television.
We do not do these types of suicide bombings and we do not target mosques.
A former spokeswoman for the Syrian opposition, Bassma Kodmani, told the BBC that Bouti was widely despised.
"He [Buti] was not a very popular figure in Syria. About a week ago he called on 'Good Muslims' to fight to defend the regime against gangs - as the regime usually describes the rebels, Kodmani said.
That probably provoked a lot of anger among the revolutionary groups who perceived him as corrupt and controlled entirely by the regime.
I am not justifying [the attack] â¦ Obviously a new level of violence has been reached and there is no justification for something such as this inside a mosque."
The Syrian conflict started out two years ago as a pro-democracy movement and devolved into a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.
More than one million people have fled Syria since the conflict started in addition to the displacement of two million others inside the country.
Opposition fighters now control much of the north and east of the large Arab state but do not dominate any major city.
There is no end in sight to the conflict in Syria, which has divided world powers.
Russia and Shiite Iran support Assad, while the United States, along with some European and Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab nations back a fractured opposition.
Damascus and some of its opponents have said they will consider peace talks, but no meetings have been arranged.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net