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Top Syria cleric threatens attacks on U.S.

BEIRUT - Syria's top Sunni Muslim cleric has warned Western countries against military intervention in Syria and threatened to retaliate with suicide bombings in the United States and Europe if his country comes under attack.

Western countries have shown no willingness to open a Libyan-style military campaign against the regime of President Bashar Assad, who has launched a bloody crackdown on the seven-month uprising against his rule, and NATO's chief said last week the alliance has "no intention whatsoever" of intervening in Syria.

Still, the prospect of such an intervention seems to have rattled the Assad regime, although publicly, officials say they are confident there would be no such thing because no one wants to foot the bill.

In a speech late Sunday, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, a state-appointed cleric and Assad loyalist, issued a clear warning to the West.

"I say to all of Europe, I say to America, we will set up suicide bombers who are now in your countries, if you bomb Syria or Lebanon," Hassoun said in a speech late Sunday. "From now on, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

Hassoun spoke to a delegation of Lebanese women who came to offer their condolences for his son's death by unknown gunmen earlier this month. "Don't come near our country, I beg you," Hassoun said.

The international community's unwillingness to get directly involved stems from a mix of international political complications, worries over unleashing a civil war and plausible risks of touching off a wider Middle East conflict with archfoes Israel and Iran in the mix.

Hassoun's comments follow another warning by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who told the international community Sunday not to recognize a new umbrella council formed by the opposition, threatening "tough measures" against any country that does so.

Moallem did not specify what measures Damascus might take. But he went on to say that countries that do not protect Syrian missions could find their own embassies treated in the same way.

The Syrian National Council, announced last week in Turkey, is a broad-based group which includes most major opposition factions. No country or international body has recognized it so far as a legal representative of the Syrian people, but the European Union is intensifying its contacts with the nascent Syrian opposition.

EU officials said Monday the were also moving to widen sanctions against Assad's regime, whose ongoing crackdown on civilian protesters has killed nearly 3,000 people.

"I believe we have to get to know them better and get to know their intentions," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in Luxembourg of the council.

Earlier in the day, the members of the council said they agreed on a democratic framework for a future nation and that they want international observers to be allowed into Syria to gauge the situation.

Ghied Al Hashmy, a political scientist who participated in a conference of Syrian opposition members in Sweden, said the council opposes military intervention but wants more political pressure on Syria, such as the targeted economic sanctions the EU has been applying.

Despite the mounting international pressure on Assad, his regime has been unrelenting in its crackdown.

On Monday, Syrian troops clashed with opponents in the flashpoint city of Homs, a hotbed of dissent where hundreds of army deserters are believed to be active. The renewed fighting in the central city illustrates the difficulty regime forces face in stamping out anti-government protests that have been bolstered by army deserters fighting back soldiers.

The trend toward militarization of the uprising has raised fears that Syria may be sliding toward civil war.

Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes over the weekend between Syrian soldiers and army defectors and a shooting at a funeral killed at least 17 members of the military and 14 civilians.

In addition to the violence in Homs on Sunday, activists said there was fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern village of Dael.

The LCC reported heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft fire in the Homs neighborhoods of Bayada and Qsour, and loud explosions in Khaldiyeh. Both groups said the fighting resulted in the destruction of homes and damaged shops and cars in several districts.

"The situation has been terrible since yesterday," said a Homs resident where the Observatory reported at least seven civilians were killed on Sunday. "The clashes were very intense yesterday and I heard shooting this morning as well."

The man, who asked that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals, said he saw troops in armored personnel carriers around tense areas of Homs, such as Khaldiyeh and Baba Amr. "The army is isolating some areas," he said, reporting bouts of gunfire throughout the Sunday and Monday.

The Observatory said five soldiers and three civilians were killed in Dael, while the rest were killed in the Jabal al-Zawiyah areas in Idlib.

Also Sunday, a shooting at a funeral in the Damascus suburb of Dumair left three dead, it said. (At left: A YouTube video purportedly of the gun attack on the funeral.)

The violence was the worst since last month's clashes in the central town of Rastan that the army retook after five days of intense fighting. The Syrian government denies any army defections and blames terrorists and Muslim extremists for the violence.

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