By Suleiman al-Khalidi
DERAA, Syria (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad made an unprecedented pledge of greater freedom and more prosperity to Syrians Thursday as anger mounted following a crackdown on protesters that left at least 37 dead.
As an aide to Assad in Damascus read out a list of decrees, which included a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.
In the southern city of Deraa, a hospital official said at least 37 people had been killed there Wednesday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world that have shaken authoritarian leaders.
Announcing the sort of concessions that would have seemed almost unimaginable three months ago in Syria, Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told a news conference the president had not himself ordered his forces to fire on protesters:
"I was a witness to the instructions of His Excellency that live ammunition should not be fired -- even if the police, security forces or officers of the status were being killed."
Assad, she said, would draft laws to provide for media freedoms and allow political movements other than the Baath party, which has ruled for half a century.
Assad, who succeed his late father Hafez al-Assed in 2000, had, Shaaban said, decreed the drafting of a law for political parties "to be presented for public debate" and would strive above all to raise living standards across the country.
She said another decree would look at "ending with great urgency the emergency law, along with issuing legislation that assures the security of the nation and its citizens."
Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths on the outskirts of Deraa Wednesday, witnesses said, after nearly a week of protests in which seven civilians had already died.
The main hospital in Deraa, in southern Syria near the Jordanian border, had received the bodies of at least 37 protesters killed Wednesday, a hospital official said.
Around 20,000 people marched Thursday in the funerals for nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying official accounts that infiltrators and "armed gangs" were behind the killings and violence in Deraa.
"Traitors do not kill their own people," they chanted. "God, Syria, Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilled in vain!"
As Syrian soldiers armed with automatic rifles roamed the streets of the southern city, residents emptied shops of basic goods and said they feared Assad's government was intent on crushing the revolt by force.
Assad, a close ally of Iran, key player in neighboring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, had earlier dismissed demands for reform in Syria, a country of 20 million people run by the Baath Party since a 1963 coup. Assad's father took personal in 1970.
A government statement had earlier blamed "armed gangs" for the violence in Deraa.
MEMORIES OF HAMA
Faced with violence, some Syrians recalled the 1982 massacre in Hama, when Assad's father sent troops to the conservative religious city to crush the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Human rights groups say at least 20,000 died.
"If the rest of Syria does not erupt Friday, we will be facing annihilation," said one resident in Deraa, referring to Friday prayers, the only time citizens are allowed to gather en masse without government permission.
The environment today, however, is very different from that of 1982, when Syria was supported by the Soviet Union and its rulers, from the minority Alawite religion, were consolidating control of the country against religious and secular opponents without serious criticism from the international community.
Assad, who is facing mounting criticism by the West for the bloodshed in Deraa, "is not against any Syrian citizen," Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara was quoted as saying this week.
The protesters in Deraa, a mainly Sunni city, have shouted slogans against the government's alliance with Shi'ite Iran, breaking a taboo on criticizing Syrian foreign policy.
Assad, who promised reforms when he became president in 2000, has ignored mounting demands to lift emergency law, allow freedom of speech and assembly, free political prisoners, make the judiciary independent, curb the control of the pervasive security apparatus and end the Baath Party's monopoly on power.
The Alawite elite have presented themselves as a source of stability in a mainly Sunni country made up of many sects and ethnicities including Shi'ites and Christians. The Baath party's founding ethos is secular and socialist.
The slogans of the protesters in Deraa, where society is predominantly tribal and religiously conservative, have however also emphasized the unity of Syria.
The city is dominated by big families and earns significant income from remittances from Syrians working abroad. Both the Baath party and the army have recruited heavily from Deraa.
SOLDIERS PATROL STREETS
The army has so far taken a secondary role in confronting protesters -- mostly manning checkpoints. Secret police and special police units wearing black have been more visible in Deraa since the protests erupted last Friday.
Witnesses said hundreds of soldiers patrolled Deraa's main streets as heavy rain fell, with scores manning intersections to prevent public gatherings. Travelers on a main highway near Deraa said they saw convoys of trucks carrying soldiers heading to Deraa Wednesday night.
In a separate attack in the early hours of Wednesday, security forces fired at protesters in the vicinity of the Omari mosque in Deraa's old quarter, residents said.
YouTube footage showed what was purported to be the street in front of the mosque before the attack, with sounds of gunfire audible and a person inside the mosque grounds yelling: "Brother don't shoot. This country is big enough for me and you."
The United Nations and the United States condemned the violence. France, which ruled Syria from 1925 to 1946, urged the Baathist elite to open up to dialogue and democratic change.
Britain called on Syria to respect people's right to peaceful protest and to take action on their grievances. Germany said the violence must end immediately.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Damascus, editing by Alastair Macdonald and Samia Nakhoul)