U.N. report sparks Syria rally

Thousands gather to denounce investigation that links leaders to Hariri assassination


DAMASCUS, Syria -- Thousands of students and civil servants poured into Syria's capital yesterday in a government-organized rally to condemn a United Nations report that implicates top Syrian officials in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet today to discuss the 54-page report written by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, which has opened a very uncertain chapter in Middle East politics as a likely showdown looms between the United States and Syria.

Gathering around a fountain in downtown Damascus, an odd mix of young students with book bags and bureaucrats in suits and ties waved banners, beat drums and blew horns, decrying the report as a politically motivated document packed with lies.

"The Mehlis Report is contrary to the truth and has no evidence," said one hand-painted banner. Schoolchildren chanted their allegiance for Syrian President Bashar Assad. A teenager flicked on a lighter, setting on fire a sign that said "Down Down America."

Connections to Iraq

Many Syrians who joined the march expressed anger that the United States is using the damning report as an opportunity to punish Syria for allegations that it is allowing insurgents to cross the border into Iraq, supporting Palestinian militants and continuing to meddle in Lebanese affairs.

"The way they are investigating reminds us of the way they looked for nuclear weapons in Iraq," Khalid Al Hanash, 42, an orthopedic surgeon from the suburbs of Damascus, said of the United States. "In the end they found nothing."

The demonstrations in Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo are part of a widening government campaign to shore up domestic support for its beleaguered president as international pressure mounts against his regime.

They were the largest response yet since the report was released last week. A leading mobile phone company sent out text messages to all subscribers encouraging them to go to the downtown Damascus rally. Schools canceled classes for the day. Government offices shut down and handed out banners and photos of Assad. Buses hauled in students from the outlying communities.

Turnout falls short

On the government-run television, radio and newspapers Syrian intellectuals, professionals, trade unions and dozens of other organizations joined a chorus of Syrians who dismissed the report as part of a U.S. and Israeli plot designed to weaken their country.

"Our people in Damascus and all over home stands in a one rank to announce the absolute reject of the continuous U.S. threats and pressures against Syria," said a statement released during the Damascus demonstration.

"It doesn't matter to us that we are on are own. We are right," said a defiant 23-year-old college student who gave her name only as Reem.

But the turnout was far less than the hundreds of thousands of people that the government news agency reported. Nor was it as large as other government rallies organized in recent years.

"This is a sign. They announced on the news today that it would be a 1 million march. So they weren't able to mobilize this 1 million," said Ayman Abdel Nour, a member of the ruling Baathist party who has been pushing for government reforms.

`Contrived' protest

Zeradecht Mohammed, 38, a Kurdish opposition leader, called yesterday's demonstration "contrived," a gathering of school children and government employees who were obliged to attend and not a spontaneous outburst of support for the government.

"I think the government is too frustrated now and is in an embarrassing situation especially since there are names mentioned in the report which are at the summit of power," he said.

An electronic version of the report, which called the Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri a "terrorist act," included the names of some of the highest Syrian officials, including Maher Assad, brother of the Syrian president, and their brother-in-law Asef Shawkat.

Syrian analysts and opposition leaders say the report is unlikely to lead to calls by the Syrian public to overthrow the regime.

"Most of the people are still afraid. We are living in a fascist, dictatorship regime," said Haitham Maleth, 74, president of the Human Rights Association of Syria, former political prisoner and one of Syria's few outspoken critics.

Instead, the pressure against Syria will come from outside, mainly from the United States and Britain, which are asking other nations to join them in taking a firm stand against Syria.

France, however, said sanctions shouldn't be considered until investigators finish looking into the assassination of Hariri. Investigators have asked for a two-month extension to complete their work.

"Let us allow that commission to run its full course," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters in Paris. French diplomats at the United Nations were working with U.S. officials trying to mobilize support for a strong resolution demanding that Syria cooperate fully with the investigation.

"This is true confessions time now for the government of Syria," U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said. "No more obstruction. No more half measures. We want substantive cooperation and we want it immediately."

Cooperation, however, might require Assad to hand over those implicated in the report, forcing him to sacrifice members of his own family and his regime's image among Syrians.

"You've got all the Middle Eastern values staring you in the face, which is family, honor, your patronage system and pride," said Joshua Landis, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern history at Oklahoma University who lives in Damascus.

If Assad cooperates, he would have to "stab all those Middle Eastern values in the back," Landis said.


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