By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY
2012-01-18 02:41 AM
Syria's response showed it was feeling the growing international pressure to halt its deadly military crackdown on dissent. The U.S. piled on more pressure Tuesday, with a senior Obama administration official saying a recent visit by the commander of Iran's powerful Quds Force to Damascus is the strongest sign yet that Washington's arch foe Tehran is supplying weapons to aid Assad's crackdown.
Qatar's leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was the first Arab head of state to call for military intervention in Syria. On Sunday, he was quoted as saying Arab troops should be deployed there.
"The Syrian people reject any foreign intervention in its affairs, under any title, and would confront any attempt to infringe upon Syria's sovereignty and the integrity of its territories," a Foreign Ministry statement said.
The U.N. says more than 5,400 people have been killed since the anti-government uprising began 10 months ago _ one of a string of revolts in the Arab world again long-ruling authoritarian regimes. The regime says 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed.
Activists said at least 18 people were killed Tuesday, and six Syrian soldiers were killed late Monday near the capital Damascus. The activists said most of Tuesday's dead were shot by security forces or pro-regime gunmen. The reports could not be independently verified. Attacks also were reported for a fifth day in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, near the border with Lebanon.
Syria is Iran's closest ally in the Middle East, something that makes its uprising potentially more explosive for the region than other Arab Spring revolts.
The U.S. has long said Iran is helping drive the Syrian military crackdown. And the Obama administration official said the visit by Quds Force Commander Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani provides a concrete example of direct, high-level cooperation between Iran and Syria. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
Syria agreed last month to an Arab League plan that called for a complete halt to the crackdown, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry like tanks from cities, the release of all political prisoners, and allowing foreign journalists and human rights workers in.
Under heavy regional pressure, Assad agreed to admit some Arab League observers to verify whether the regime was living up to its agreement to halt violence. But the effectiveness of the observers has been limited and hundreds more were killed even after Syria agreed to stop the violence. About 150 Arab League observers are working in Syria and the League said Tuesday another 10 are expected to head into Syria shortly.
Qatar, which is part of the Arab League and once had close relations with Damascus, has been a harsh critic of the crackdown. Since the wave of Arab Spring uprisings began more than a year ago, Qatar has taken an aggressive role, raising its influence in the region.
Adding to the international pressure on Assad, the Dutch foreign minister called on Assad's opponents to form a "united, representative and inclusive" opposition to the regime, an indication that the fragmentation of the opposition movements is itself an issue.
Uri Rosenthal also said he would keep pressing for further European Union sanctions and a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. He spoke after meeting Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group for the opposition.
Ghalioun's visit came a day after Russia circulated a revised Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria. Western diplomats said the draft fell short of their demand for strong condemnation of Assad's crackdown.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 people were killed in Syria on Tuesday, most of them shot dead by troops or pro-government gunmen. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said 32 people were killed, 19 of them in the restive central province of Homs.
It was impossible to resolve the discrepancy or to independently verify the death toll. Syria has banned most foreign corespondents and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground.
The state-run news agency, SANA, reported violence targeting security forces and civilians Tuesday, saying a roadside bomb went off near a minibus in the northwestern province of Idlib, killing four and wounding five.
A video posted online by activists showed a minibus with its roof blown out and blood stains on the seats. The narrator blamed security forces for the attack.
Earlier in the day, SANA said that an "armed terrorist group" launched rocket-propelled grenades at an army checkpoint late Monday, killing an officer and five army personnel about six miles (nine kilometers) southwest of Damascus.
The government blames the violence in Syria on terrorists and armed gangs that it claims are part of a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.