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Explosions in Damascus Target Shiites From Iraq, Kill At Least 40

This photo, released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows blood soaked streets and damaged buses after a bombing in Damascus on Saturday.

Two explosions killed more than 40 people in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Saturday in an attack that seemed to target Shiites visiting holy sites from Iraq.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but there are a number of militant groups in Syria who target Shiites, including the Islamic State and the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida.

Syrian State TV showed footage of blood-soaked streets after the bombing, according to The Associated Press, as well as damaged buses in a parking lot near Bab al-Saghir cemetery. The cemetery is near one of the seven gates of the old city of Damascus, and many prominent religious figures are buried there, including family members of the Prophet Muhammad.

"The normally secure area is home to a number of Shiite shrines, which continue to draw religious pilgrims," reports NPR's Alison Meuse. "Sunni extremists like Islamic State consider Shiites heretics and blame Shiite militias for propping up Bashar al-Assad's government."

It was unclear whether both explosions were the result of suicide attacks, or if a bomb was placed in the cemetery itself. Iraq's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that at least 40 of those killed were Iraqi, as well as 120 more wounded. Shiites from across the middle east and Asia often visit shrines in Syria, according to the AP.

The number killed is expected to rise, as many people were transported from the scene in critical condition.

The second blast went off 10 minutes after the first, causing harm also to people tending to the wounded, a Damascus correspondent told a TV station, according to Reuters.

Attacks are not uncommon elsewhere in Syria, but they've become rare in the Syrian capital where President Bashar al-Assad has mostly solidified control.

Assad told a Hong-Kong-based TV station on Saturday that his military priority now, as the war in Syria is in its seventh year, is reaching the Islamic State's de-facto capital of Raqqa, according to the AP:

Assad said that "in theory" he shares the same priority with U.S. President Donald Trump of fighting terrorism but that they have had no formal contact yet. He said Russia, a major ally, hopes it can urge the U.S. and Turkey to cooperate with Moscow and Damascus in the fight against terrorism in Syria. Assad's government views all armed opposition as terrorist groups.

As NPR's Merrit Kennedy reported earlier this week, the United States announced a decision to send about 400 more Marines to Syria to help wrest control of Raqqa from ISIS as well. That brings the number of Americans on the ground in that country to about 900.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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