Mass protests support Syria's hard-line regime

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Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Syria's hard-line regime poured into the streets of the capital Damascus and at least four other major cities today, waving pictures of the president and flags as the government tried to show it has mass support in the face of protests demanding more freedoms in this tightly controlled Arab state.

President Bashar Assad, whose family has controlled Syria for four decades and has a history of brutally crushing dissent, is trying to calm these protests with concessions. He is expected to address the nation in the next 24 hours to announce he is lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.

Syria's independent Al-Watan newspaper said the Cabinet was expected to resign during its weekly meeting today, a move that would be viewed as another concession to the protesters. However, the resignations will not affect Assad, who holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime.

Assad, 45, is now facing down the most serious threat to his family's long-standing authority in this predominantly Sunni country ruled by the minority Alawite sect.

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 protests that began in a southern city on March 18 and spread to other areas. There was a swift crackdown by security forces, and at least 61 people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch.

The unrest in the strategically important country of 23 million 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.

The government-sanctioned rallies today 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.

"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.

The unrest was touched by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the southern agricultural city of Daraa, and quickly spread to other provinces. The protests and violence have eased in the past few days but tensions persist in Daraa and the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

Troops yesterday fired tear gas on a crowd of some 4,000 people in Daraa who were calling for more political freedoms, witnesses said. They also fired live ammunition in the air to disperse the crowd.