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As US strike looms, al-Qaida-linked rebels attack regime-held Christian village

Al-Qaida-linked rebels have launched an assault on a regime-held Christian village in the densely populated west of Syria and new clashes erupted near the capital, Damascus — part of a brutal battle of attrition each side believes it can win despite more than two years of deadlock.

As the world focused on possible U.S. military action against Syria, rebels commandeered a mountaintop hotel in the village of Maaloula and shelled the community below Wednesday, said a nun, speaking by phone from a convent in the village. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The attack came hours before a Senate panel voted to give President Barack Obama authority to use military force against Syria — the first time lawmakers have voted to allow military action since the October 2002 votes authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

The measure, which cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a 10-7 vote, was altered at the last minute to support "decisive changes to the present military balance of power" in Syria's civil war, though it ruled out U.S. combat operations on the ground. It was expected to reach the full Senate floor next week.

The Syria conflict, which began with a popular uprising in March 2011, has been stalemated, and it's not clear if U.S. military strikes over the regime's alleged chemical weapons use would change that. Obama has said he seeks limited pinpoint action to deter future chemical attacks, not regime change.

Obama has been lobbying for international and domestic support for punishing President Bashar Assad's regime, which the U.S. says fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin on rebel-held areas near Damascus before dawn on Aug. 21, killing hundreds of civilians.

So far, however, he has won little international backing for action. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the U.S. in a strike.

In a parliament debate, France's Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault made a passionate appeal for intervention in Syria, placing the blame for the alleged chemical attack on Assad and warning that inaction could let him carry out more atrocities.

The debate ended without a vote since President Francois Hollande can order a military operation without one.

Obama has called chemical weapons use a "red line," and top administration officials argued before the Senate on Tuesday that Assad would take inaction by Washington as a license for further brutality against his people. The fighting has killed more than 100,000 Syrians and uprooted nearly 7 million from their homes.

During a visit to Sweden on Wednesday, Obama said a red line had been drawn by countries around the world that have backed a long-standing ban on chemical weapons. "I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line," he said.

With the Syria debate in Congress in full swing, questions arose around the administration's assurances. It's not clear, critics said, how the U.S. could expect to deliver surgical strikes in Syria's chaotic battlefield or predict the repercussions, including possible Assad regime reprisals against Syria's neighbors.

The civil war in Syria hit a stalemate almost from the start. The rebels control much of the countryside in the north, east and south, but the regime is hanging on to most urban centers in the west, where the majority of Syrians live.

Within that deadlock, each side has consolidated control over certain areas, said Peter Harling, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group think tank.

Momentum "is always shifting enough for both sides to be able to convince themselves that victory is ultimately feasible," he said. "In practice, both sides are stuck and can achieve very little militarily."

The dawn assault on the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula was carried out by rebels from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group, according to a Syrian government official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group.

At the start of the attack, an al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the village, said the Observatory, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists.

The suicide attack was followed by fighting between the rebels and regime forces, the Observatory and a nun in the village said. Eventually, the rebels seized the checkpoint, disabled two tanks and an armored personnel carrier and killed eight regime soldiers in fighting, the British-based group said.

The nun said the rebels took over the Safir hotel atop a mountain overlooking the village and fired shells at it from there. "It's a war. It has been going from 6 a.m. in the morning," she said.

Some 80 people from the village took refuge in the convent, which houses 13 nuns and 27 orphans, she said.

A Syrian government official confirmed the assault and said the military was trying to repel the rebels. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.

Maaloula, a mountain village some 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, is home to about 2,000 residents, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the ancient language of biblical times believed to have been spoken by Jesus.

The four-decade iron rule of the Assad clan over Syria has long rested on support from the country's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shiite Muslims and Kurds. The Assad family and key regime figures are Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims.

In fighting in Damascus, a mortar shell fired by rebels hit a sports hall, killing a member of the national tae kwon do team, 27-year-old Mohammed Ali Neimeh, the state news agency SANA said. Neimeh had been training for an upcoming Islamic Solidarity Tournament in Indonesia this week.

Rebels and regime forces also clashed on the outskirts of the capital, according to amateur video. In the Daraya district, several fighters fired assault rifles from behind an earthen embankment. Smoke rose from the neighborhood of Barzek after the shelling.

There were new signs of rivalry among rebel groups that have been fragmented from the start. The two main camps are the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which portrays itself as the largest fighting group, and jihadist fighters, including thousands from outside Syria, who have become increasingly dominant, particularly in the north and sparsely populated east.

Among the jihadists, there have been several splits in recent months, particularly between those loyal to commanders in Syria and those who pledge allegiance to al-Qaida-linked groups in Iraq.

In an amateur video posted online Wednesday, a foreign fighter was seen standing among other bearded men who he says have come to Syria from Russia and the Caucasus to wage jihad, or holy war.

"Our brigade is called the Mujahedin of the Caucasus and the Levant, and we have our brothers from all over the world with us," he said in halting Russian translated into Arabic. He said his men had broken away from one of the jihadi blocs, known as ISIS, and that the group is also "independent from Jabhat al-Nusra and others."

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.