As the Syrian military besieged rebellious areas Wednesday, President Bashar Assad ordered a referendum for later this month on a new constitution that would open the way to political parties other than his ruling Baath Party.
The referendum was announced on Syrian state TV, but it was not immediately clear how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when some areas have seen daily battles between Syrian soldiers and army defectors.
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Members of the national committee which produced the new constitution said they had sought to write a document that "guarantees the dignity of the Syrian citizen and secures his basic rights" and "turns Syria into an example to follow in terms of public freedoms and political plurality", the state news agency Sana reported.
"When the new constitution is approved, Syria will have passed the most important stage of laying down the constitutional and legal structure through the reforms and laws that have already been issued to take the country to a new era in cooperation with all spectrums of the Syrian people," Assad was quoted as saying.
Amendments to Syria's constitution once were a key demand by the opposition at the start of the country's 11-month-old uprising. But in the wake of the regime's deadly assault on dissent, many opposition leaders are demanding nothing less than Assad's departure.
'Legislation according to Islamic law.' Assad (Photo: AFP)
"The people in the street today have demands, and one of these demands is the departure of this regime," said Khalaf Dahowd, a member of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, an umbrella for several opposition groups in Syria and in exile.
He rejected the Feb. 26 vote as a way for Assad to stall for time.
The current Syrian constitution enshrines Assad's Baath Party as the leader of the state. But according to the new draft, obtained by The Associated Press, "the state's political system is based on political pluralism and power is practiced democratically through voting."
The draft also says the president can hold office only for a maximum of two seven-year terms. Assad, who inherited power from his father, has been in power for nearly 12 years.
His father, Hafez, ruled for 30 years.
The new constitution also states that the Syrian leader's religion is Islam and that Islam law is the main source for legislation.
The Syrian revolt started in March with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family dynasty, but the conflict has become far more violent and militarized in recent months as army defectors fight back against government forces.
Many observers fear it is taking on the dimensions of a civil war.
The announcement of the upcoming referendum came during one of the deadliest assaults of the uprising. The government has been shelling the rebellious city of Homs for more than a week, and the humanitarian situation was deteriorating rapidly.
Activists say hundreds have been killed, and there was no way to treat the wounded.
The violence continued Wednesday. Activists said an oil pipeline in the central city of Homs was attacked. Amateur video posted online showed thick black smoke billowing from what appeared to be a residential area.
The Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Homs pipeline was in the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr, which has been shelled by regime troops for the past 12 days.
Homs is home to one of Syria's two oil refineries. It has also been one of the cities hardest hit by Assad's crackdown.
Also Wednesday, regime troops stormed several residential neighborhoods in the nearby city of Hama, activists said.
There was no immediate information on casualties in the latest assaults.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay told the General Assembly this week that more than 5,400 people were killed last year alone, and that the number of dead and injured continues to rise daily in Syria.
Syria's oil and gas pipelines have been attacked before during the 11-month uprising.
SANA blamed "armed terrorists" for Wednesday's pipeline attack. It said the pipeline feeds the tankers in the Damascus suburb of Adra, which contribute in supplying gasoline to the capital and southern regions.
Diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis have reached a standstill after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution aimed at ending Syria's bloodshed on Feb. 4.
Russia, which has stood by Assad during the uprising, said the UN resolution did not make enough demands on the armed opposition in Syria and that calls for Assad to step aside could wreck chances for a negotiated solution to the country's upheaval.
On Wednesday, Syrian ambassador to Russia Riyad Mohammad Haddad said Assad will not resign.
"I exclude such an option," he was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
"The number of those who demand his resignation is very small," the Syrian diplomat said. "Say, 100,000 out of 23 million. So, no comment."
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