Head of Syria's Al-Nusra Front: We owe our allegiance to Zawahiri
BEIRUT - The head of Syria's jihadist Al-Nusra Front on Wednesday pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message, but distanced his group from claims it had merged with Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"The sons of Al-Nusra Front pledge allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri," Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani said in the recording.
But, he added, "we were not consulted" on an announcement by Al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Tuesday of a merger with Al-Nusra Front.
"Al-Nusra Front will not change its flag, though we will continue to be proud of the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, of those who carry it and those who sacrifice themselves and shed their blood for it," said Jawlani, acknowledging he had fought in Iraq alongside the ISI, Al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch.
"We reassure our brothers in Syria that Al-Nusra Front's behaviour will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance (to Al-Qaeda) will not affect our politics in any way," he added.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq confirmed on Tuesday long-held suspicions that it is behind jihadists fighting in Syria.
The mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army kept its distance from the jihadists, insisting its alliance with the key opposition fighting force was purely tactical and that its goal was a democratic Syria.
"The Al-Nusra Front is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq," the head of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq front group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said in a recording posted online.
Describing Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani as "one of our soldiers," he said the two groups would merge under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Baghdadi's comments came a day after an Al-Nusra-style suicide bombing in the heart of Damascus killed at least 15 people and wounded 146.
They also came after Al-Qaeda's global chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged rebels to fight to establish an Islamic state in Syria, in an audio message posted on the Internet on Sunday.
Al-Nusra, which announced its creation in a January 2012 video, is a magnet for foreign fighters seeking to take part in the insurgency against Assad's regime.
The US State Department said Tuesday that Al-Qaeda in Iraq's "public claim of ownership of the Nusrah Front validates what we've long known that the Nusrah Front is the Syrian arm of AQI," said deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
Washington already blacklisted Al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation in December, citing its close links to Al-Qaeda fighters who led the insurgency against US forces in Iraq before they withdrew at the end of 2011.
France said it wanted to hold talks within the UN Security Council and the European Union on the possible wider terror blacklisting of Al-Nusra.
But French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot cautioned: "We must be careful when taking such decisions of the consequences this can have on the ground."
The FSA has struck a careful balance between Al-Nusra and its Western critics, mindful of the well-armed, highly disciplined jihadists' effectiveness as a fighting force.
"We don't support the ideology of Al-Nusra," FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad said on Tuesday.
"There has never been and there will never be a decision at the command level to coordinate with Al-Nusra. The situation on the ground is what has imposed this."
Al-Nusra has said it is seeking an Islamic state in Syria after Assad's overthrow, but Meqdad insisted: "No one has the right to impose on Syrians what shape their state will take.
"Syrians will go to the polls to choose their leaders," he said. "Our goal is clear -- to bring down the regime and establish a democratic state."
The New York Times reported last month that the CIA was helping Arab states and Turkey to boost arms shipments to Syria's rebels, in a move to try to prevent the weapons ending up in the hands of extremists.