Assaf effigies - Reuters - December 2011
Effigies, including one of Syrian President Bashar Assad (in red), hanging in the town of Amuda on Friday. Photo by Reuters
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BEIRUT - Thousands of Syrians chanted "Death to America" during funeral processions in Damascus yesterday for at least 44 people killed in twin suicide bombings that rocked the capital.

Syria blamed Al-Qaida for the blasts, which hit two security buildings on Friday and came a day after an Arab League delegation arrived to prepare for monitors who will report on Syrian President Bashar Assad's implementation of a plan to end the bloodshed. Some Assad opponents said the attacks could have been staged by the government itself.

The funerals turned into pro-Assad rallies in which mourners called for revenge and condemned Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani whose country, once an ally of Assad, is now one of his main 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, wrapped in Syrian flags, were lined up inside the city's historic gilded eighth-century Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites. Many were marked "unknown".

Both Muslim and Christian clerics attended the funerals, which were led by senior Sunni Muslim cleric Said al-Bouti. Syria's state television aired live footage of the funeral processions. Bouti said those who carried out the attacks were enemies of "humanity and religion" and accused opposition group the Syrian National Council of being behind the explosions.

"This is a gift from (SNC leader ) Burhan Ghalioun and his friends. Have the veils on the eyes of the Arab League (delegation ) dropped now so that they see who is the murderer and who is the victim?"

"So that they know that the Syrian army cannot blow up oil pipelines. It cannot kill its own members," he said.

The Arab League, driven to act by jitters about popular revolts that have overthrown several Arab autocrats this year, imposed sanctions on Syria and suspended its membership in the body.

The explosions in Damascus shocked Syrians. Many adopted the government line of blaming Al-Qaida.

Assad has sent tanks and troops to crush nine months of street protests against his rule. The rallies are now increasingly eclipsed by an armed insurgency against his military and security apparatus.

The blasts in central Damascus on Friday signaled a dramatic escalation in violence, which Syrian authorities blame on "armed groups" they say have killed 2,000 soldiers and security force members this year. The United Nations says Assad's crackdown has killed more than 5,000 people.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts.

Al-Qaida is Sunni Muslim. 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.