By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Funerals for 44 people killed in twin suicide car bombs in Damascus turned into a show of support for President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday, with thousands of mourners denouncing the United States and its Arab allies for interfering in Syria.
The United Nations voiced grave concern over the bombings, which marked an ominous step up in the violence that has rocked the Arab nation for nine months, claiming at least 5,000 lives.
Syria said al Qaeda terrorists were behind the attacks. The media displayed gruesome pictures of dismembered bodies and heads. There has been no claim of responsibility.
Opposition members said they suspected the Assad government carried out the bombings itself, to prove to the world it is facing a ruthless insurgency by armed Islamic fundamentalists.
In Cairo, Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi said he would go to Damascus on Saturday as head of an Arab League monitoring mission which intends to fan out over Syria to verify compliance with an Arab peace plan.
The first batch of about 50 monitors is expected to reach Syria on Monday. Assad's foes say the mission will only be used to gain time while security forces try to smother the revolt.
"I am optimistic that the mission of the monitors will be successful and that events such as yesterday's blasts in Damascus will not affect the mission," Dabi told reporters.
The official Syrian news agency SANA reported that seven army and police "martyrs' killed in clashes with insurgents had been buried on Saturday. The government says 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed in the unrest since March.
"OUR BLOOD FOR BASHAR"
Thousands of Syrians chanted "Death to America" during the funeral processions in Damascus, cheering Assad, calling for revenge and denouncing Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani who has become one of Assad's main Arab 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, draped in Syrian flags, were lined up inside the gilded 8th century Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, in scenes shown on state TV. Many were marked "unknown."
Leading Sunni Muslim cleric Said al-Bouti said he hoped the attacks would lift "the veils on the eyes of the Arab League ... so that they see who is the murderer and who is the victim."
Al Qaeda are Sunni Muslim militants. Assad and Syria's power elite belong to the Alawite branch of Shi'ite Islam while most Syrians, including protesters and insurgents, are Sunnis.
Hamas, a Sunni Islamist Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, condemned the bombings and called for a "quick" political solution to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Hamas has its headquarters in Damascus, but diplomats say dozens of its operatives have quietly returned to Gaza from Damascus as the group scaled back its presence in Syria and gauged the uncertain future of Assad. Hamas denies such reports.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the attacks.
"Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and ... any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable," it said in a statement.
Western powers say the security forces have perpetrated most of the violence in Syria. But Russia, an old ally of Damascus, wants any U.N. resolution on the crisis to be even-handed.
"If the requirement is that we drop all reference to violence coming from extreme opposition, that's not going to happen," U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said in New York after Russia submitted a revised draft resolution to the council.
"If they expect us to have an arms embargo, that's not going to happen," he said. The experience of Libya showed it would be one-sided and used against the government, Churkin said.
Assad has used tanks and troops to try to crush mainly peaceful street protests inspired by other Arab uprisings this year. Armed insurgents and army deserters are now fighting back.
"A NEW PHASE"
Syria has generally barred foreign media from the country, making it hard to verify accounts of events from either side.
But Friday's blasts signaled a dramatic escalation.
"It's a new phase. We're getting militarized here," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. He said the bombs were a "small premonition" of what may come in a country that some analysts see slipping towards civil war.
"This is when the Syrian opposition is beginning to realize they are on their own," he added, referring to Western reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria.
A Syrian Interior Ministry spokesman said 166 people were wounded by the Damascus explosions, which blew human limbs into the streets. It broadcast footage of mangled bodies being carried in blankets and on stretchers into ambulances, a row of corpses wrapped in sheets lying in the street.
The Arab League peace plan stipulates a withdrawal of troops from protest-hit cities and towns, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition. Opponents of Assad have ruled out any negotiations until the violence against protesters stops.
Damascus says more than 1,000 prisoners have been freed since the Arab plan was agreed and the army has left cities.
Anti-Assad activists say no such pullout has occurred.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 civilians were killed by security forces outside the capital on Friday, eight of them in Homs, a bastion of the revolt.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alistair Lyon)