Mass Funeral Near Damascus 26.03.12
Mass Funeral Near Damascus 26.03.12Reuters

Arab foreign ministers preparing to meet in Baghdad on Thursday called on Syria's government to hold talks with the opposition and to end over a year of violence.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on a popular uprising against his regime has lasted over a year and claimed at least 9,100 lives, United Nations Human Rights officials say.

Assad's government has already said it will reject any initiative made at the Arab League summit relating to violence in Syria.

"Since its membership has been suspended, Syria will only deal with Arab countries based on state-to-state relationships. Therefore, we will not deal with any initiative issued by the Arab League at any level," Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisssi said in a statement.

Arab countries are divided over how aggressively to intervene in Syria's turmoil. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are believed to favor providing weapons to Syria's rebels and even carving out a "safe area" inside the country where the opposition can operate.

Iraq, the host of this week's summit, is more cautious. Baghdad's Shiite-dominated government is close to Iran, Assad's closest ally.

On Wednesday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Arab foreign ministers gathered in Baghdad that his country rejects foreign intervention in Syria but supports what he called the "aspirations of the Syrian people for freedom and democracy."

The call came as fighting continues in Syria, just two days after Assad formally accepted a proposal by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan aimed at resolving the crisis.

Over 40 have been killed, and hundreds of shops and houses have been burned, in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb since Assad's forces launched an assault on the rebel-held town Sunday.

Fighting broke out on Thursday in Rastan, controlled by army defectors who have held out against weeks of government shelling and sniper fire.

There were also reports of fresh clashes in Deir Al Zour province near the Iraqi border, and government troops firing mortars at the city of Homs where three soldiers were killed in clashes on Wednesday.

Annan's plan calls for Damascus to immediately stop troop movements and use of heavy weapons in populated areas, and to commit to a daily two-hour halt in fighting to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations.

Members of the fractured opposition struggling to end Assad's regime accused him of using the plan to stall for time as his troops make a renewed push to kill off bastions of dissent.

The government denies there is a popular uprising, saying the revolt is being driven by armed groups and others it calls "terrorists."

The Syrian uprising began peacefully but became increasingly militarized after the government began utilizing tanks, snipers and troops with machine guns to break up protests — which many opposition members say forced them to take up arms.