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Syria's Assad calls referendum on new constitution

Pro-Syrian regime protester rides his scooter with his two sons in Beirut, Lebanon
A pro-Syrian regime protester rides his scooter with his two sons, while holding a Syrian flag bearing a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as other protester in the background wave a Russian flag during a demonstration where a number of anti-Syrian regime protesters and supporters of the Islamic group Jamaa Islamiya were also protesting, in front the Russian embassy, in Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 5, 2012. AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday approved a draft for a new constitution that would end his ruling Baath party's monopoly on power in the fraught nation and open the door for all political parties to compete.

In announcement carried on state-run television aimed at quelling an 11-month uprising which has posed the greatest threat to his family's rule in decades, Assad declared that a national referendum on the draft would be held on Feb. 26.

Presidential sources say Assad, who met this week with the newly-established 29-member constitutional charter committee, "wanted the people to have their say on this move, the first step on a democratic Syria," with a simple "yes-no" vote.

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The current constitution, which was changed by President Assad's late father, then-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." That clause is missing from the new draft.

The charter committee members agreed in their last session on the abolition of Article VIII of the Syrian constitution, which means canceling the domination of the Baath Arab Socialist Party in the leadership of political life. Assad approved their draft on Wednesday.

Under the new constitution, other parties would have the "right" to name their own candidates for the presidency, which would be set at a maximum of two consecutive seven-year terms.

The draft constitution also declares that Syria is a "democratic civil state".

It is the latest attempt by the Syrian leader to silence the popular uprising which has engulfed the country.

The United Nations estimated the death toll from the unrest at 5,400 in 2011 alone. The global body stopped updating that figure in 2012, however, as escalating violence and the government's ban on independent reporting made it difficult to obtain accurate information.

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A new constitution has been a key demand of the opposition movement which erupted in March, initially calling for democratic reform and greater freedoms.

But the opposition, along with Western leaders, have increasingly dismissed Assad's promises of political reform, as his forces continue to bombard civilians in several cities - most notably Homs. The opposition rejected the referendum as another stall tactic and repeated its demands for nothing less than Assad's resignation.

On Wednesday, opposition activists said the assault on Homs - Syria's second largest city - was still ongoing, and they reported government raids also in Hama and a Damascus suburb.

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Syria's uprising has escalated in recent months into an open conflict between rebels troops and pro-Assad forces, with many observers warning the nation may be heading toward all out civil war.

Two weeks ago, Russia and China vetoed a Western and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan for Assad to step aside, order his troops to stand down and enact democratic reforms.

Moscow and Beijing said they blocked the measure because they perceived it as taking sides in a domestic conflict and providing a possible pretext for foreign military intervention.

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