DAMASCUS -- A foiled attempt yesterday by suspected Al Qaeda-linked militants to blow up the US Embassy in Damascus led to an unusual diplomatic exchange highlighting the tense relations between the countries. The United States praised Syria for thwarting the attack, but Syria replied by blaming US policies for strengthening Islamic militants.
No Americans were hurt and the embassy was not damaged in the brazen, midmorning attack, in which Syrian guards exchanged fire outside the compound's walls with gunmen shouting ``God is great" who tried to storm in with automatic weapons and hand grenades. Three attackers and a Syrian guard were killed.
The assault could indicate that the Syrian regime's grip on militants, who have battled Syrian security forces in recent years, is weakening.
Sunni Muslim extremists such as Al Qaeda fiercely despise President Bashar Assad's regime because of its secular ideology and because his father, the late President Hafez Assad, led a crackdown on Muslim fundamentalists that killed thousands in the city of Hama in 1982. They also reject Assad's rule because he belongs to the Shi'ite Alawite sect of Islam.
The attempted bombing took place in a heavily guarded neighborhood of Damascus where several foreign embassies and Assad's office and residence are located. A fourth attacker was wounded and arrested.
The rapid response by Syrian guards won rare praise from the United States, which accuses Assad's government of supporting terrorism in its backing of Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian militants. The US withdrew its ambassador from Damascus last year to protest Syria's alleged role in the assassination of a prominent politician in Lebanon.
``I do think that the Syrians reacted to this attack in a way that helped to secure our people, and we very much appreciate that," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
White House spokesman Tony Snow also thanked Syrian officials and called for Damascus to ``become an ally and make the choice of fighting against terrorists."
But Syria responded with a sharp criticism of the United States, blaming its policies in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories for increasing Islamic militancy.
``It is regrettable that US policies in the Middle East have fueled extremism, terrorism, and anti-US sentiment," the Syrian Embassy in Washington said in a statement. ``The US should . . . start looking at the root causes of terrorism and broker a comprehensive peace in the Middle East."
It curtly said that Syria ``performed its duties" under the Geneva Conventions to protect the embassy.
Anti-American sentiment has been rising across the Middle East since Israel's 34-day war with Hezbollah in Lebanon that ended nearly a month ago, on top of turmoil in Iraq that many in Syria blame on the United States.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on a little-known Al Qaeda offshoot called Jund al-Sham, Arabic for Soldiers of Syria.
Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, told the Associated Press it was too early to say but ``it's logically possible" Jund al-Sham was responsible.
If confirmed, it would be the boldest and most sophisticated attack yet by Jund al-Sham.
At the State Department, deputy spokesman Tom Casey said: ``Clearly, it was an organized terrorist attack on our embassy. But exactly who was responsible for it and who they might be affiliated with and what their motives are . . . we'll just have to look at."
The attackers came in two cars, one of them an explosives-laden pickup truck. The first car pulled up in front of the embassy's entrance and three gunmen burst out. Shouting ``Allahu akbar" -- God is great -- they threw hand grenades and fired automatic weapons toward the gate and a Syrian guard post, sparking a 15-minute gun battle.
At the same time, the truck -- filled with pipe bombs rigged to gas canisters -- pulled up to a gate on another side of the triangle-shaped compound. But when the shooting erupted, the driver ran away without detonating it. The driver was shot and arrested .
The three attackers, who were all killed, tried to throw their grenades over the embassy's white 15-foot-high walls, but none made it over.
Three Syrian security agents were wounded as well as 10 civilians and a Chinese diplomat who was watching the gun battle from the rooftop of the Chinese Embassy across the street.