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stephen starr

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks to a girl during his visit to the families of students killed during clashes between forces loyal to him and their opponents, in Damascus in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA on March 20, 2013.SANA/Reuters

An attack on the Iman mosque in central Damascus Thursday afternoon in an apparent suicide bombing is unlikely to do the country's revolutionary forces any good.

Syrian State TV blamed "terrorists" – the government's catch-all term for rebels opposing its rule – for what it called a suicide bombing. It said at least 41 people were killed.

The likely target of the blast was Sheik Mohammad al-Bouti – possibly by radical Islamist elements because of his pro-government stance. Sheik al-Bouti was a leading Islamic scholar and professor at Damascus University, and was one of President Bashar al-Assad's most prominent supporters.

Earlier this month, Sheik al-Bouti called on Syria's Grand Mufti, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, to declare a general mobilization of armed forces. Syrian media later said rumors of mobilization were untrue.

The Iman mosque is located at a busy intersection in central Damascus and anti-government protests were held outside the mosque in 2011. The Baath Party headquarters next door was targeted in December, 2011, in one of the first rebel attacks to have succeeded in breaching the inner capital.

This is the second time in less than two months this district of Damascus has been targeted, but, troublingly, is the first suicide attack on a mosque. (Since the early days of revolt the government has fired on mosques using guns, tanks and shelling.)

Thursday evening prayers are popular ahead of the weekend and day of rest, Friday.

Fingers will be pointed at the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on government targets, but has not openly targeted places of worship. In December, a Shia mosque was burnt down by Syrian fighters in the northwest Syrian town of Jisr Al-Shaghour.