By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Funerals for the 44 victims of twin car bombs in Damascus turned into a strong display of support on Saturday for President Bashar al-Assad, hailed by crowds of mourners who denounced the United States and its Arab allies for interfering in Syria.
The United Nations expressed grave concern over the bombings, which marked an ominous escalation in the violence that has rocked the Arab nation for the past nine months, claiming at least 5,000 lives.
Syria said al Qaeda terrorists were behind the attacks. There has been no claim of responsibility. Opposition members said they suspected the Assad government carried out the bombings itself, to prove to the world it is facing a ruthless insurgency by armed Islamic fundamentalists.
In Cairo, Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi said he would go to Damascus on Saturday to assume his role as head of an Arab League monitoring mission which is intended to fan out over the country and verify an armistice.
The first batch of about 50 monitors is expected to travel to Syria on Monday. Assad opponents say the mission will only be used as a foil to gain time while government security forces advance their drive to smother the revolt.
"I am optimistic that the mission of the monitors will be successful and that events such as yesterday's blasts in Damascus will not affect the mission," Dabi told reporters.
"OUR BLOOD FOR BASHAR"
Thousands of Syrians chanted "Death to America" during the funeral processions in Damascus, cheering Assad, calling for revenge and denouncing Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani who has become one of Assad's main Arab critics.
The crowd, carrying posters of Assad and Syrian flags, chanted "We want your head, Hamad" and "We sacrifice our souls and blood for you Bashar" and "God, Syria and Bashar only."
The coffins, draped in Syrian flags, were lined up inside the city's historic gilded 8th century Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites. Many were marked "unknown." Syria's state TV carried a live broadcast.
Sunni Muslim cleric Mufti Ahmad Hassoun said he hoped the bloody bombings would remove the "the veils on the eyes of the Arab League ... so that they see who is the murderer and who is the victim."
Al Qaeda are Sunni Muslim militants. Assad and Syria's power elite belong to the Alawite branch of Shi'ite Islam while the majority of Syrians, including protesters and insurgents, are Sunnis.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the attacks.
"Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and ... any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable," it said in a statement.
Western powers say government security forces have been responsible for most of the violence in Syria. But Russia, an old ally of Damascus, wants any Security Council resolution on the crisis to be even-handed.
"If the requirement is that we drop all reference to violence coming from extreme opposition, that's not going to happen," U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said in New York after Russia submitted a revised draft resolution to the council.
"If they expect us to have arms embargo, that's not going to happen," he said. The experience of Libya showed it would be one-sided, against the government, Churkin said.
Assad used tanks and troops to try to crush the street protests that began in March, inspired by other Arab uprisings this year. Peaceful demonstrations against the regime are now being eclipsed by an armed insurgency.
"A NEW PHASE"
Syria has generally barred foreign media from the country, making it hard to verify accounts of events from either side.
But Friday's blasts signaled a dramatic escalation.
"It's a new phase. We're getting militarized here," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who felt Friday's bombs were a "small premonition" of what may come in a country that some analysts see slipping towards civil war.
"This is when the Syrian opposition is beginning to realize they are on their own," he added, referring to Western reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria.
A Syrian interior ministry spokesman said 166 people were wounded by the Damascus explosions, which blew human limbs into the streets. It broadcast footage of mangled bodies being carried in blankets and on stretchers into ambulances, a row of corpses wrapped in sheets lying in the street.
The Arab League peace plan stipulates a withdrawal of troops from protest-hit cities and towns, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
Damascus says more than 1,000 prisoners have been freed since the Arab plan was agreed and the army has pulled out of cities.
Anti-Assad activists say no such pullout has occurred.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 civilians were killed by security forces in their crackdown outside the capital on Friday, eight of them in Homs, heart of the revolt.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Louis Charbonneau; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Millership)
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