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Arab leaders expected to back UN peace plan for Syria

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Newspapers –

BAGHDAD — With its own initiatives having failed, the Arab League is expected Thursday to back a U.N.-led peace plan during a meeting in Iraq, where the crisis in Syria is expected to be the dominant topic.

Officials said Wednesday that whatever the Arab League leaders did, they wouldn’t call for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster or issue any other ultimatums for resolving the year-old conflict that’s killed thousands of Syrians, the vast majority of them civilians.

Officials denied that they were softening their stance on Syria, but it’s apparent that the Arab League is backing off its tough talk from January, when the group called on Assad to hand over authority to a deputy, thereby launching a phased transition. At the time, the league had hoped for a unity government to form within two months, to be followed by elections supervised by Arab and international monitors.

Some Arab officials have acknowledged privately that the earlier stance was adopted too hastily, when it appeared that the regime was poised for collapse. Assad’s forces have since routed rebels in flash-point cities, while internal divisions threaten to unravel an opposition coalition that many had hoped would become an interim authority.

Assad has agreed to a six-point proposal put forth by U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, according to the Syrian state news agency SANA, which noted in an online report that Russia and China supported Assad’s backing of “a responsible stance seeking acceptable solutions for all.”

Anti-government Syrian activists have rejected any plan that keeps Assad in power, and it seems he won’t go without a fight. A separate SANA report Wednesday quoted a Syrian Foreign Ministry official as saying the government “would not deal with any initiative by the Arab League, at any level, in its absence.”

The Arab League has suspended Syria over its bloody crackdown on protesters; it’s the only one of the 22 member countries that isn’t represented at the Baghdad conference.

Annan’s plan calls for an immediate cease-fire by government and opposition forces, a withdrawal of government troops and heavy weapons from residential areas, humanitarian aid, the release of detainees and greater access for journalists after the regime’s sustained attempts at a news blackout on the crisis.

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