Iraq's al-Qaida merges with Syria's militant group

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This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows smoke rising from burned cars after a huge explosion shook the Sabaa Bahrat Square, one of the capital's biggest roundabouts, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April. 8, 2013. A car bomb rocked a busy residential and commercial district in central Damascus on Monday, killing more than a dozen with many more injured and sending a huge cloud of black smoke billowing over the capital’s skyline, Syrian state-run media said. (AP Photo/SANA)

CAIRO (AP) — The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq says it has merged with Syria's extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, which has sided with the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, says the two groups will rally under the same al-Qaida flag. His announcement came in a 21-minute audio message posted on militant websites late Monday.

Al-Baghdadi says the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra will be known as the "Islamic State in Iraq and Sham."

Sham is a name for Syria and the surrounding region.

The development is likely to raise concerns among foreign backers of Syria's opposition.

Jabhat Al-Nusra has taken an increasing role in Syria's conflict, claiming several large suicide bombings. The U.S. has designated it a terrorist organization.