Islamic summit backs Syria dialogue

Associated Press
This image taken from video obtained from Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows smoke and fire billowing from an explosion in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. Heavy fighting erupted in Damascus Wednesday as government forces tried to hold back a new rebel effort to push the civil war into the heart of the Syrian capital, activists said.(AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)
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CAIRO (AP) — Leaders at an Islamic summit on Thursday urged a dialogue between the Syrian opposition and regime just as a new initiative for talks proposed by an anti-government leader appeared to be unraveling.

Like previous diplomatic initiatives on Syria, opposition chief Mouaz al-Khatib's call for talks made less than a week ago appeared doomed to failure. And with troops and rebels clashing for a second day around Damascus, frustrated Syrians dismissed the calls for dialogue as empty talk.

"All of this does not concern us," said Iyad, a Syrian fighter on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, which has witnessed heavy fighting in the last two days.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose country is Syria's closest ally in the Middle East, attended the summit and said at a news conference Thursday that he supported dialogue. He added that Egypt, Turkey and Iran were moving toward cooperation on Syria. But he also defended Bashar Assad regime, warning against meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also strongly welcomed al-Khatib's proposal for political talks and expressed hope that Syrian authorities would accept it.

He strongly criticized Syria's President Bashar Assad for using terrorists as a justification to kill civilians and shell villages.

The U.N. chief told a group of journalists Thursday that the Syrian crisis didn't start because of terrorism — but he said because Assad continued to kill his own people, terrorist elements are now taking advantage of the turmoil.

"He could have stopped this violence a long time ago and this political dialogue could have commenced a long time ago," Ban said. "But he has been continuously killing, and he has not been listening to his own people. That's why people, out of frustration, out of anger, they have been fighting against their own government."

The Syrian civil war is largely at a stalemate, with neither side making significant battlefield gains likely to bring about a military victory any time soon.

But the international community has been at a loss for ways to end the carnage, with both sides showing no real interest in a political settlement.

At the end of a two-day summit in Cairo, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation urged Syrian opposition forces and members of the regime whose hands are not tainted by violence to hold talks on resolving the nearly 2-year-old conflict.

In the final statement of the conference, they called for concrete efforts to reach a settlement "that would preserve the rights of the Syrian people and ensure the unity and the safety of their land."

The statement did not specifically refer to the recent dialogue offer by al-Khatib, who has said he would be willing to sit down with regime members on condition they release 160,000 political prisoners.

His offer sparked criticism from fellow opposition activists who say the regime has killed too many people to play a role in the conflict's solution.

On Thursday, al-Khatib appeared to be backing away from the offer. He demanded that the regime release all female political prisoners by Sunday or he would scrap his initiative.

"The regime has until Sunday to begin releasing detainees, especially women. This should be the introduction of prisoners' release," he told BBC Arabic in an interview.

Al-Khatib's offer followed meetings he had held separately with Russian, U.S. and Iranian officials on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich last weekend. Russia and Iran are Syria's two closest allies.

The government has ignored his offer. But one lawmaker said the talks should be without preconditions.

Many of al-Khatib's colleagues in the Syrian National Coalition say President Assad must step down before there can be any negotiations.

Participants at the Cairo summit did not call on Assad to step down, but the meeting exposed conflicting views among Muslim and Arab nations about the Syrian civil war. At past summits, many nations, including Egypt, demanded that Assad go.

Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, elected after an uprising ousted his authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak, sharply criticized Assad's embattled regime in his address to the summit. But he did not directly call for him to go as he had in the past.

He said the Syrian government "must read history and grasp its immortal message: It is the people who remain and those who put their personal interests before those of their people will inevitably go."

The summit's final statement also stressed support for a working group proposed by Morsi last year, made up of the leaders of Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia to address the Syria crisis.

But Saudi Arabia only attended the quartet's first meeting several months ago and Saudi Crown Prince Salman, who was heading his country's delegation to the OIC summit, left Egypt just before the mini-summit was held Wednesday.

Egyptian officials insist that the Saudis have not pulled out, and an Egyptian presidential spokesman said Salman left because of other, personal engagements. The Saudi foreign minister stayed to attend the OIC summit.

But it is widely suspected that the kingdom has quit the group because they could not see the point of working with arch rival Iran, Assad's most ardent backer.

Ahmadinejad was asked to comment about the Saudi stance at his news conference in Cairo.

"We don't know why they left and we are not in a position to speak for them," he told reporters. "But, I am sure that our brothers in the kingdom (Saudi) will be happy and welcoming if we take positive steps toward a solution in Syria," he added.

Ahmadinejad said he was "alarmed by what Syria is going through" and called for dialogue.

"Egypt, Turkey and Iran are moving toward cooperation (on Syria) but no one has the right to interfere in the domestic affairs of others," he said. "Instead we must encourage a national dialogue there. War is not a good thing. War always breeds war," he added.

"Any government that comes to office through war cannot bring about a lasting peace. Only free elections and national dialogue can bring about security and a lasting peace."

The fighting in Damascus subsided significantly on Thursday, a day after the heaviest clashes in months.

Clashes were inching closer to the heart of the city, but still were focused in outlying neighborhoods such as Qaboun, Jobar and Zamalka in the northeast. Government troops beat back rebels who had tried to take over Jobar.

Fighters in rebellious suburbs of Damascus have made several attempts to overrun the heavily guarded center of the city, but failed. As in other parts of the country, the fighting has reached a stalemate.

"The work is being done here by us," said Iyad, the fighter who gave only his first name for security reasons. "The rest is just empty talk," he said of the calls for dialogue.

State-run television said rebels fired two mortar rounds at a bus station in the Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus, killing six people including three children and a woman. The TV, quoting an unnamed Interior Ministry official, said others were wounded in the attack.

The Observatory reported clashes and shelling between troops and rebels near Qaboun, saying several shells hit the neighborhood. It said the fighting occurred near the highway that links Damascus with the central city of Homs, Syria's third-largest.

In other areas, the Observatory reported heavy clashes between troops and rebels near the northern town of al-Safira, where there have been heavy clashes over the past weeks.

Al-Safira, south of the northern city of Aleppo, is home to military production facilities. The rebels have failed to advance in the area after weeks of intense clashes.

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Karam reported from Beirut.

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