AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian security forces shot dead three mourners and injured 20 on Saturday when they fired on a protester funeral procession in central Damascus while troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fought army defectors west of the capital, witnesses said.
In his latest move to try and defuse discontent, part of a wave of popular unrest against repressive autocrats across the Arab world, Assad formed a committee to draft a new constitution within four months, the official news agency SANA said.
The move raised the possibility that a clause designating his Baath Party, which seized power in a 1963 coup, as “leader of the state and society” could be scrapped.
In a sign of growing regional pressure on Assad to undertake genuine reform after seven months of street protests, al Jazeera television said Arab foreign ministers would hold an emergency meeting on Sunday in Cairo to discuss the crisis in Syria.
Gulf Arab states had earlier called for an immediate meeting of the Arab League to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria and study ways to stop the bloodshed.
Assad has sent troops and tanks into restive cities and towns to try put down the unrest but protests have persisted, spreading to suburbs and rural regions around cities as troops have occupied main squares in urban centers.
With the deployment of thousands of police and militiamen loyal to Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 41 years, central neighborhoods of Damascus have remained largely free of pro-democracy demonstrations.
But at Saturday’s funeral for a ten-year-old boy, Ibrahim Sheiban, killed in a protest rally the day before, “passions were running high,” said one of the witnesses, a private sector employee who asked not to be identified for his own protection.
“The body was wrapped in white and thousands behind it were chanting ‘the people want the execution of the president’ and ‘we will be free despite you Bashar’,” he said.
Some mourners began throwing stones at the security forces, who fired back with live ammunition, the witness told Reuters by phone from the scene in the Damascus district of Maidan.
The killings in Maidan brought to at least nine the number of people killed while protesting against Assad in the last 48 hours, according to rights activists.
The United Nations called on Friday for international protection for civilians from a crackdown it said could kindle civil war between Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims and members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Sunnis also comprise most of the army’s rank and file while the officer corps is comprised primarily of Alawites effectively under the command of Assad’s younger brother, Maher.
The authorities have expelled most independent media from Syria, make it difficult to verify accounts of events.
Syrian leaders blame the violence on foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups” who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police. The United Nations said the military crackdown on unrest has killed 3,000 people, including at least 187 children.
“The onus is on all members of the international community to take protective action in a collective manner, before the continual ruthless repression and killings drive the country into a full-blown civil war,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said in a statement.
“As more members of the military refuse to attack civilians and change sides, the crisis is already showing worrying signs of descending into an armed struggle,” she added.
Assad was quoted by state media this week as saying Syria had “passed the most difficult stage” of the uprising.
In the Zabani Plain, around 35 km (22 miles) west of Damascus on the fringes of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, army defectors fought loyalist troops for several hours on Saturday, according to local residents.
“I saw army jeeps towing two (vehicles) belonging to State Security that were riddled with bullets. Blood was practically seeping from them,” said a resident of the resort town, who gave his name as Mohammad. “They ransacked houses in Zabadani overnight looking for deserters and activists.”
Sticking to a strategy of dismissing the protests as a foreign plot to divide Syria while touting “reforms that safeguard Syria’s sovereignty”, Assad formed a committee on Saturday to draft a new constitution within four months.
“President Assad issued today decree number 33 which stipulates forming a committee to prepare for a draft constitution,” the official news agency agency SANA said.
The constitution, which was changed by Assad’s late father, President Hafez al-Assad, in the 1970s, discourages any political pluralism by stipulating that the ruling Baath Party is “leader of the state and society.”
The Syrian opposition has called for the clause to be scrapped, along with another that says the president can only be nominated by his Baath Party as well as numerous laws passed in the last 50 years which they say allow Assad and his security apparatus to practice repression and corruption with impunity.
New laws issued by Assad in the past three months permit “parties committed to democratic principles” and established an election commission. But they also preserved quotas that retain the majority of seats for farmers and workers, whose representatives are drawn from state-controlled unions.
Syria’s current parliament, a rubber stamp body, does not have a single opposition figure.
Editing by Mark Heinrich