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Iran tells Syria to recognize demands

Remarks are first from ally about protest movement

By Nada Bakri
New York Times / August 28, 2011

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BEIRUT - Iran, Syria’s closest ally, called on the government in Damascus to recognize its people’s “legitimate’’ demands yesterday, the first such remarks to come from the country since the five-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad started.

Although the remarks, by Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, were broad and did not call for Assad to step down, they were the first public sign of growing unease with the crisis in Syria - even as Iran has maintained an unyielding crackdown on its own dissenters.

Other governments in the region are increasingly worried that the crisis could spill beyond Syria’s borders, especially given Assad’s seeming determination to snuff out a resilient demonstration movement despite the cost in sectarian and social tensions.

That violence continued yesterday as Syrian security forces opened fire on hundreds of demonstrators across the country, killing at least three people, according to activists.

“The government should answer to the demands of its people, be it Syria, Yemen, or other countries,’’ Salehi was quoted by the ISNA news agency as saying. “The people of these nations have legitimate demands, and the governments should answer these demands as soon as possible.’’

But Salehi warned of dangerous regional implications if the crisis in Syria were not solved peacefully, in a reference to the international military intervention in Libya to help rebels there end the rule of Moammar Khadafy.

Salehi’s remarks echoed those on Friday by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, in which he called on Syria to introduce reforms but warned of regional fallout.

Salehi cautioned, “A vacuum in the Syrian regime would have an unpredictable impact on the region and its neighbors.’’

The United States and some European nations have called on Assad to step down and are trying to tighten sanctions against the Syrian government and individual people and groups seen to be aiding it.

That has affected Iran as well: In the past week, the EU announced that it was putting sanctions on the secretive Al Quds wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, saying it was providing technical and material support for Syria’s crackdown on demonstrators.

One person was killed yesterday when security forces shot at demonstrators leaving the Rifai mosque in the Kfar Susseh neighborhood, in the western part of Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The imam of the mosque, Osama al-Rifai, was wounded in the attack along with nine others, according to the observatory.

Demonstrations were also held in Roukn Eddine, a neighborhood in northern Damascus, and in Zabadani, a suburb of the capital.

Another person was killed in house-to-house raids in the northern town of Kfar Nabel, near Idlib, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a group of activists who track the uprising; another one was shot in Deir el-Zour.

The United Nations says that more than 2,200 people have been killed across Syria since the protests began in mid-March.

But the government disputes this account and says that it is facing a foreign conspiracy aimed at creating strife in the country, and that it is fighting armed Muslim extremists.

Protests Friday night and early yesterday drew thousands of antigovernment activists, according to the Local Coordination Committees.

The military was out in force by yesterday afternoon, particularly in the Damascus suburbs, the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, and the coastal city of Latakia. Sporadic shooting was reported.

Assad’s main base of support includes Syrians who have received financial benefits from his regime, minority groups who feel they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to Assad. Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has filled key military posts with members of his minority Alawite sect.

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