By Suleiman al-Khalidi
DERAA, Syria (Reuters) - Small crowds gathered in the tense Syrian city of Deraa on Friday after calls to attend the funerals of people killed in unprecedented anti-government protests, but there was no immediate sign of protests.
Activists said there was debate among people assembled at Deraa's main Omari mosque whether a rally should be organized following the killing of at least 44 people in a police crackdown on the unrest that erupted a week ago.
"There is a sense of demoralization among the protesters, especially if no other cities in Syria rise up," said a resident of the city in southern Syria near the border with Jordan.
Deraa was on edge but calm before noon prayers as President Bashar al-Assad's loyalists began to organize rallies to counter the rage that engulfed Deraa after the bloodshed that rattled a country in the iron grip of the Baath Party for almost 50 years.
A large procession of cars coursed through Deraa's streets honking horns and raising pictures of the president. There were pro-Assad congregations in other parts of the city.
Minarets in Deraa echoed throughout the morning with the calls of imams to the faithful to attend funerals of some of the civilians killed, most of them when security forces fired on demonstrators in the mainly Sunni Muslim city on Wednesday.
A Facebook page called Syrian Revolution called on people to gather on the "Friday of Dignity" after prayers, "in all mosques, in all provinces, in the biggest squares."
But similar calls over the past two months have not generated serious rallies that could threaten the grip of Assad, who succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago.
Bashar al-Assad promised on Thursday to look into granting Syrians greater freedoms in an attempt to defuse the outbreak of popular demands for political freedoms and an end to corruption.
They were inspired by uprisings across the Arab world that have toppled the entrenched leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
Despite Assad's gesture, which included a pledge to look into ending emergency law and an offer of large public pay rises, thousands of Syrians later turned out at the Omari mosque to chant "freedom, revolution."
A hospital official said at least 37 people were killed in Deraa on Wednesday when security forces fired on demonstrators in the impoverished provincial city.
The funeral of at least five people was scheduled on Friday.
Syrian security forces pulled out on Thursday from the mosque where several people were killed. People later converged on the mosque to celebrate its "liberation," setting off fireworks and honking car horns.
ASSAD STUDIES POSSIBLE REFORMS
While an aide said Assad would study a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.
Announcing promises for reform in a manner 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 state were being killed."
On January 31, Assad had said there was no chance political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.
The Baath Party, which has ruled Syria tightly since a 1963 coup, will draft laws to provide for media freedoms, and will look at allowing other political movements. The party will also seek to lift living standards.
Assad, who has strengthened Syria's ties with Iran, has come under criticism for his handling of the protests. The United States described the shootings of protesters as "brutal."
"For now, this remains a geographically isolated tragedy. But it also constitutes an ominous precedent with widespread popular resonance that could soon be repeated elsewhere," the International Crisis Group think-tank said.
Syrian authorities released all those arrested in the Deraa region since the protests erupted, an official statement said, without giving a figure.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday that Syria should follow the example of Egypt, where the army held fire and helped the people overthrow the rule of Hosni Mubarak.
"I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people," Gates said.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy; writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; editing by Mark Heinrich)