The huge explosion that wrecked the bus carrying Iranian pilgrims to the Shiite Sayyeda Zainab shrine in central Damascus Thursday, Dec. 3 is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources as leaving at least 20 dead and close to a hundred injured. Surrounding buildings were badly damaged including the Ayatollah Khomeini hospital donated by Tehran. Yet Syrian officials, who are fond of portraying their country as a haven of peace although it is ruled with an iron fist, insisted that the disaster was a “serious accident” caused by a burst tire, that the bus was empty and only three Syrians were killed, even while Iranian television called it an act of terror and reported at least twelve dead.
Since Iran's National Security Council direct Saeed Jalili was visiting Damascus at the time and received by president Bashar Assad, it is safe to assume that Iranian intelligence was well informed about the episode.
On Sept. 27, 2008, at exactly the same spot, a car bomb killed 17 people including a high Syrian intelligence officer, who was in charge of liaison with the fundamentalist Fatah al-Islam terrorist group which acted for Damascus in northern Lebanon.
He fell out with the group when he suspected its operatives of training al Qaeda fighters.
Later, Syrian security forces raided the Yarmoukh Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus and killed the Fatah-al-Islam leader Shaker al-Abassi.
There is some logic in the theory bandied about in some Middle East intelligence circles which assigns responsibility for the Iranian pilgrim bus attack on this organization. Fatah al-Islam has lately recovered its strength in Lebanon. Al Qaeda may have helped its bombers to infiltrate Damascus and execute the attack.
Neither Syria nor Iran is short of enemies
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources postulate two possible alternatives:
1. Israeli intelligence: In February 2007, Hizballah's security chief Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus. Since then, Israeli agents appear to go in and out of the Syrian capital and other towns at will.
The Iranian bus attack was planned to take place in Damascus concurrently with the arrival of the Iranian official in Damascus. Whoever planned it aimed for a deliberate assault on Iranian-Syrian military and nuclear cooperation.
This theory gains credence from the information from our sources that Jalili was there to confer with Syrian officials on joint action for the next stage of the diplomatic showdown over Iran's nuclear program. Tehran was given until the end of the year to cooperate in settling the controversy.
Those sources further reveal that the Iranian official brought with him secret data indicating that the Obama administration was preparing to open a new front against Syria, as its primary target.
2. Iraqi intelligence: The Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki is still burning over the large-scale bombing of his government offices in Baghdad on Oct. 25, in which 155 Iraqis lost their lives and 800 were injured. At the time, he accused Syria of a hand in the attack, but he was not backed up from Washington and Assad was able to brush him off.