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Arab League to discuss suspending Syria

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Men hold a Syrian national flag during a demonstration against President Bashar Assad in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid) Men hold a Syrian national flag during a demonstration against President Bashar Assad in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

BEIRUT (AP) — The Arab League has called an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss whether to suspend Syria, officials said, ramping up the pressure on Damascus to end its bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Suspension is unlikely to have a direct, tangible impact on Syria, but it would still constitute a major blow to President Bashar Assad's embattled regime by stripping Damascus of its Arab support and further deepening its isolation.

Despite the growing international chorus for an end to the crisis, Assad has shown no sign of backing down or easing his campaign to crush the 7-month-old uprising. On Sunday, security forces opened fire on a funeral for a slain activist in the east, while forces elsewhere arrested at least 44 people in the capital's suburbs in house-to-house raids Sunday and more than 900 people in the central city of Homs over the past week.

Arab League officials said the meeting Sunday in Cairo was called at the behest of several Gulf countries and aimed to pressure Assad to halt the crackdown, which the U.N. says has killed more than 3,000 people since the uprising began in mid-March.

Many Gulf states, including heavyweight Saudi Arabia, already have withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria to protest the regime's bloody response to the protests. Other Arab countries, however, have remained silent or reluctant in their criticism of the Syrian crackdown.

The suspension of an Arab League member is very rare.

The 22-member League suspended Libya's membership earlier this year after Moammar Gadhafi launched a violent crackdown on protesters there. That gave the international community a free hand to intervene with air power to target Gadhafi's forces.

The League has since reinstated Libya under the country's new leadership.

International intervention is all but out of the question in Syria. Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for stepping into another Arab nation in turmoil. There also is real concern that Assad's ouster would spread chaos around the region.

Syria is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.

About 2,0000 anti-Assad protesters gathered outside the Arab League building on the edge of Cairo's Tahrir Square, the center of Egypt's uprising.

"Oh, Bashar, son of a dog, go away, Bashar!" they shouted. "Freedom is on fire. Go away, Bashar."

The newly formed opposition body known as the Syrian National Council called on the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership "until a new regime is born." It also appealed for the council to recognize it as the "sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people."

Saudi political scientist Khalid al-Dakhil said a suspension would send a powerful message.

"The Arab League silence was like a green light to the regime to continue killings. It gave a cover for the Syrian regime," he said.

One official said the Arab League will consider other measures if suspension fails to compel Syria to stop the bloodshed. He declined to elaborate. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

An Arab diplomat said League members were divided over what steps to take.

A bloc of six Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia was pushing for suspension and a recognition of the opposition Syrian national Council, he said.

Against the measures, the diplomat said, were Sudan, Algeria, Syria's neighbor Lebanon and Yemen, whose leader is also facing a serious uprising.

During a consultative meeting before the official gathering in Cairo, Arab foreign ministers all rejected foreign intervention but agreed to press the Syrian regime to present a road map for reforms and presidential elections, the diplomat said.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Meanwhile, around 7,000 people took to the streets Sunday in the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour for the funeral of an activist, Ziad al-Obeidi, who was killed a day earlier. Al-Obeidi worked for the British-based Observatory for Human Rights in Syria and had been in hiding since troops stormed the city two months ago.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said security forces fired live ammunition to disperse the mourners Sunday, but there was no immediate word on casualties.


Michael reported from Cairo.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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