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Syrian Cabinet resigns amid huge protests

Syria's Cabinet resigned Tuesday to help quell a wave of popular fury that erupted more than a week ago and is now threatening President Bashar Assad's 11-year rule.
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/ Source: news services

Syria's Cabinet resigned Tuesday to help quell a wave of popular fury that erupted more than a week ago and is now threatening President Bashar Assad's 11-year rule in one of the most authoritarian and closed-off nations in the Middle East.

Assad, whose family has controlled Syria for four decades, is trying to calm the growing dissent with a string of concessions. He is expected to address the nation in the next 24 hours to lift emergency laws in place since 1963 and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.

More than 60 people have died since March 18 as security forces cracked down on protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

State TV said Tuesday Assad accepted the resignation of the 32-member Cabinet headed by Naji al-Otari, who has been in place since September 23. The Cabinet will continue running the country's affairs until the formation of a new government.

The resignations will not affect Assad, who holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime.

The announcement came hours after hundreds of thousands of supporters of Syria's hard-line regime poured into the streets Tuesday as the government tried to show it has mass support.

Lawyers arrested
Separately, authorities have arrested four lawyers who supported the unprecedented protests demanding political freedoms, rights defenders said.

Hussein Issa, one of the lawyers arrest over the past days, was detained Sunday outside the Palace of Justice in the Syrian capital, activists said.

Issa was leaving the compound after submitting papers in defense of protesters who staged a silent demonstration for the release of political prisoners and of 15 children arrested in Deraa for writing freedom slogans on school walls, they said.

The silent protest in Marjeh Square in Damascus took place two days before the demonstrations erupted in Deraa on March 18.

A lawyer from Deraa, Thamer al-Jahmani, was also arrested on Sunday after he made statements to the press in support of his home city. Two lawyers, Suleiman al-Nahili and Nidal al-Sheikh Hamoud, were arrested as they marched on Friday in a demonstration in the city of Homs in support of Deraa.

Syria's ruling hierarchy has a history of imprisoning lawyers, despite condemnation of the practice by the International Lawyers Union and international rights group.

Leading lawyers Anwar al-Bunni and Mohannad al-Hussani, who have spent their life defending political prisoners, are serving five and three-year sentences respectively for "weakening national morale."

The two are winners of prestigious rights awards, together with 80-year-old lawyer and former judge Haitham al-Maleh, who spent nearly a year in jail before he was released under an amnesty marking the anniversary of the coup which brought the Baath Party to power.

Sectarian tensions
The protests and ensuing violence have brought sectarian tensions in Syria out in the open for the first time in decades, a taboo topic here because the country has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam. Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria.

But he also has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes, while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.

Many of the pro-regime demonstrators emphasized national unity Tuesday.

"Sectarianism was never an issue before, this is a conspiracy targeting Syria," said Jinane Adra, a 36-year-old Syrian who came from Saudi Arabia to express support for Assad.

"The Syrian people are one, there is no place for religious divisions between us," she said, flanked by her children, ages 3 and 5, carrying red roses and pictures of Assad.

Mohammed Ali, 40, said Assad was in touch with the Syrian people and aware of their need for reforms.

"This dirty conspiracy will be short-lived, we are all behind him," he said, cradling an Assad poster on his chest.

The president of 11 years, one of the most anti-Western leaders in the Middle East, is wavering between cracking down and compromising in the face of the protests that began in a southern city and spread to other areas.

The unrest in the strategically important country could have implications well beyond the country's borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Mideast. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently has reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.

The government-sanctioned rallies Tuesday dubbed "loyalty to the nation march" brought hundreds of thousands into the streets in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Hasakeh in the north and the central cities of Hama and Homs. School children were given the day off and bank employees and other workers were given two hours off to attend the demonstrations.

Still, many in Syria who see Assad as a young, dynamic leader and credit him for opening up the economy were shocked by the violence and came to express genuine support.

"The people want Bashar Assad!" chanted protesters in a central Damascus square. Men, women and children gathered in front of a huge picture of Assad freshly put up on the Central Bank building.

"No to sectarianism and no to civil strife," read one placard.

When unrest roiling the Middle East hit Syria, it was a dramatic turn for Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of iron-fisted rule. In January, he said his country is immune to such unrest because he is in tune with his people's needs