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Syria to hold constitutional referendum amid raging violence

By the CNN Wire Staff
February 26, 2012 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: President hails referendum as reform; critics contend it's window dressing
  • NEW: Funerals are held for 18 soldiers and law-enforcement personnel, SANA reports
  • Opposition group: At least 100 people killed Saturday
  • The Red Cross fails to negotiate more Homs evacuations

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(CNN) -- A constitutional referendum will be held in Syria on Sunday, one day after aid workers failed to negotiate a temporary cease-fire in the besieged city of Homs and at least 100 people were reported killed.

Embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has called the referendum a reform initiative. But analysts and demonstrators ridicule the effort as window dressing, the latest in a series of superficial measures undertaken to mollify the president's critics.

Among the changes in the draft constitution to be voted on is an article that states "the law shall regulate the provisions and procedures related to the formation of political parties."

"Carrying out any political activity or forming any political parties or groupings on the basis of religious, sectarian, tribal, regional, class-based, professional, or on discrimination based on gender, origin, race or color may not be undertaken," it continues.

The language suggests government permission is needed to form a party and excludes a number of people and groups from political activity, according to Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It's not going to change the fact that it's a minority-dominated situation," he said. "It will remain a presidential system with powers vested in the hands of the president."

Tabler said al-Assad is using this "tactic to get people to leave the streets."

But former Syrian lawmaker George Jabbour said "clause 8 of the new draft of the constitution is the essential point" of the document. It "allows a multi-party system as opposed to the Baath Party being the leading party of the society and the state as stipulated in the current constitution." The Baath Party rules Syria.

Jabbour said "special committees will be formed to look into the licensing of new parties in line with the new constitution."

As for presidential elections, they "will be competitive since there is no leading party anymore, and all the parties' candidates are eligible provided their candidacy is endorsed by at least 35 members of parliament," Jabbour said.

Preparations for the vote were complete and the interior ministry "has taken all measures to guarantee an honest referendum process," the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported early Sunday.

According to Free Syrian Army Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamado, civilians say that government authorities are pressuring them to vote for the referendum.

The expected vote comes one day after the Red Cross failed to reach a deal with Syrian authorities and opposition members for a break in fighting so wounded people could be evacuated from Homs, an agency spokesman said.

"There has been no evacuation from Homs today (Saturday). We simply could not reach any kind of agreement," International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh said from Damascus.

He said the ICRC will continue trying to negotiate for access.

On Friday, Syrian forces agreed to a brief cease-fire in Homs to allow Red Crescent volunteer crews to evacuate seven wounded people, ICRC spokesman Hisham Hassan told CNN in a telephone interview. Twenty Syrian women and children, who were not hurt, were also evacuated, he said.

The ICRC has urged combatants to stop fighting for two hours each day to deliver humanitarian aid to Homs and other cities.

The calls for a cessation of violence come amid increasingly dire reports in Homs from the opposition and humanitarian organizations, who describe a lack of medical supplies, food and water shortages, and an increasing body count. Residents in the city have been trapped by shelling and sniper fire for three weeks.

At least 47 of the 100 people killed across Syria on Saturday died in Homs, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition groups.

Among those killed was 17-year-old Anas al-Tarsheh, an opposition videographer who primarily documented the shelling of the Sunni-dominated Homs neighborhood of Inshaat, the LCC said.

Deaths also occurred in the Hama suburbs, the Aleppo suburbs, Daraa province and Idlib province, the group said. A rebel leader in Idlib said Syrian soldiers burned houses, shelled towns and deployed snipers. Hamado said the empty Idlib house of FSA commander Col. Riad al-Assad was burned and destroyed.

More than 100 civilians were arrested during a raid of Rhaibeh in the Damascus suburbs, and 22 residents and three defected soldiers were arrested at a military checkpoint in Daraa, the LCC said.

Funeral services were held for 18 soldiers and law-enforcement personnel on Saturday, according to SANA.

CNN and other media outlets cannot independently verify opposition or government reports because Syria has severely limited access to the country by foreign journalists.

Also Saturday, the mother of Marie Colvin, a veteran correspondent for The Sunday Times of London who was killed in a shelling attack in Homs, said her daughter's body may be buried in Syria. Aid workers determined removing the body would be too dangerous, she said.

World powers have strongly condemned the year-long crackdown against civilians calling for the president's ouster. The LCC reports the death toll is around 9,000, while the Syrian government says more than 2,000 security forces have been killed.

The conflict erupted in mid-March of 2011, when al-Assad's Alawite minority-dominated government launched a crackdown against a predominantly Sunni anti-government protest movement that eventually devolved into an uprising with an armed resistance. Al-Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Al-Assad has denied targeting civilians, saying his forces are after "terrorists" and foreign fighters bent on destabilizing Syria.

But evidence that civilians are being killed by government forces has been documented by citizen journalists and the opposition who post their work on social media websites and YouTube.

CNN's Samira Said, Chelsea J. Carter, Kareem Khadder, Yousuf Basil, Joe Sterling and journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report.

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