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Beirut • The head of an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria reached out to rival rebel groups that have been engaged in a bloody battle with his fighters this month, calling for the two sides to end their infighting and instead unite against the government and its allies.
Rebel-on-rebel infighting between the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and an array or ultraconservative and more moderate rebel factions has killed more than 1,000 people across opposition-held northern Syria since it began in early January. The clashes are the most serious among the opponents of President Bashar Assad in Syria's nearly three-year civil war.
In a 16-minute audio message posted online Sunday, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accused the other rebel brigades of stabbing his group in the back and said the infighting benefits only the government.
"You know that we did not want this war, we did not go for it and we did not plan for it. It is clear that the beneficiaries of this war are the Nusayris and the Shiites," he said, using a derogatory term for Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
But he also called for reconciliation, saying the Islamic State "is extending its hand so that we refrain from attacking each other and so that we can join forces" against Assad and his allies.
The message's authenticity could not be independently confirmed, but the audio was posted on a website commonly used by Islamic militants.
In Istanbul, meanwhile, the leadership of Syria's main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, was meeting to decide on its delegation for peace talks set to open Wednesday in Switzerland.
Senior coalition member Ahmad Ramadan said the meeting will decide who will negotiate with the Syrian government delegation at the so-called Geneva 2 conference.
Under immense pressure from its foreign patrons, the coalition decided late Saturday to take part in the peace talks, paving the way for the first direct negotiations between the rival sides.
The conference aims to broker a political settlement to the conflict based on a plan adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012. That plan includes the creation of a transitional government with full executive powers.
The U.S. and Russia have been trying to convene the conference since May, but it was repeatedly postponed.
The opposition does not want President Bashar Assad to have any role during the transitional period. Syrian government officials say Assad will not hand over power and has the right to run for president again later this year.
Iran invited to attend meeting on Syria
United Nations • The United Nations says Iran has been invited to attend a meeting of foreign ministers in Switzerland on Wednesday ahead of internationally brokered peace talks between Syria's warring factions.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Sunday afternoon that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has pledged that his country "would play a positive and constructive role" in the meeting to be held in the Swiss city of Montreux.
Ban says Iran is among 10 additional countries invited to attend the meeting that precedes the talks scheduled to begin Friday between Syrian President Bashar Assad's delegation and Syrian opposition groups at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva. Thirty other countries had already accepted invitations.
Ban says Iran has agreed to endorse principles from a previous peace conference calling for a transitional government in Syria.
The Associated Press