A high-profile Syrian armed opposition group has merged with al-Qaeda in Iraq, in a move that shows the growing power of radical Islamist factions in Syria and will dismay western backers of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra said on Tuesday they would now be known collectively as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham [Greater Syria]” – apparently confirming longstanding allegations that militant opposition elements in Syria draw on former fighters against the US occupation of Iraq.

The declarations add to signs of jostling for influence among al-Qaeda franchises in the wider region, with the group’s north Africa affiliate denouncing al-Nusra as a western-Arab ploy to tempt fighters from the jihadist campaign in Mali to go to Syria instead.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, said in a statement posted on militant websites that al-Nusra was “merely an extension” of his group and is heavily financed by it. While much of Syria’s opposition is not jihadist, al-Nusra has proved one of the most militarily effective factions and has captured significant territory since the uprising against Mr Assad began more than two years ago.

Mr Baghdadi’s account of the links between his Iraq al-Qaeda group and al-Nusra was confirmed in a posting on an al-Nusra-linked website and is consistent with previous US allegations that militants from western Iraq have flowed across the border to Syria. The Iraqi army launched attacks on alleged al-Qaeda bases in the western province of Anbar last year, and Iraqi officials last week asked the US to carry out drone strikes in the region.

Analysts says Mr Baghdadi’s announcement shows how the success of al-Nusra and the respect it has acquired among Syrian regime opponents has given al-Qaeda the confidence to reveal an affiliation previously hidden for fear of alienating some anti-Assad Syrians.

“They wanted to get Syrians to get to know Jabhat al-Nusra before [it] became known as al-Qaeda,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. “It suggests they are in a really good position in Syria and they think that this is their time to shine and gloat.”

The public link to al-Qaeda piles fresh pressure on western countries who want to oust Mr Assad without strengthening radical Islamist elements in the opposition.

When the US late last year branded al-Nusra a terrorist organisation, it provoked protests from some Assad opponents who see the jihadist group as one of their main defenders against a brutal government army in a conflict estimated to have killed more than 70,000 people.

In a further twist to a dangerously complex situation, jihadist groups also appear to be sparring among themselves, with al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – the terrorist organisation’s north African branch – calling on Tunisian, Libyans, Moroccans and others in the region to join the fight in Mali. AQIM and local affiliates occupied northern Mali last year and were pushed back in a French-led operation.

A statement published by Algerian media and attributed to Abu Hadhifah el-Gharib, an aide to the leader of AQIM, called al-Nusra “a French plot with the participation of the regimes in the Arab Maghreb countries to send away the biggest number of jihadists from the jihad front”.

A second statement by AQIM’s media arm forbade young Muslim men from travelling abroad for jihad without the sanction of local religious leaders. “The Islamic Maghreb front is now in dire need of the support of the sons of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania,” said the statement, which was published by the Algerian daily newspaper el-Khabar. “Those who wish to emigrate for the sake of God must join the convoy of jihad in the land of the Islamic Maghreb.”

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