The Arab League has given Syria until Wednesday to allow observers into the country or else it will likely turn to the U.N. Security Council for action to try to end the deadly violence against regime opponents, Qatar's prime minister said Saturday.
Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani said in Qatar that Arab foreign ministers will hold a "decisive and important" meeting in Cairo on Wednesday to decide on next steps. He said there is near unanimity on taking the Arab League's plan to the Security Council in hopes the world body can bring more pressure to bear on Damascus to accept it. Syria has demanded changes to the proposal, which calls for an end to the government's crackdown.
"We hope that the brothers in Syria sign before that date," Hamad said, referring to Wednesday's meeting.
The violence continued Saturday. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces shot dead at least 20 people, most of them in the central province of Homs, a restive province that has seen intense protests and clashes since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 34 people were killed, including eight army defectors. It did not say where the defectors were killed but there have been reports of clashes in the northwestern province of Idlib.
The United Nations has been waiting for word from the Arab League before moving ahead with a resolution on Syria. A clear nod from Syria's Arab neighbors could ease Russian and Chinese opposition to sanctions. Both nations have veto power at the Security Council.
The Arab plan calls for Syria to halt its crackdown, hold talks with the opposition and allow in Arab observers to ensure compliance with the deal. It does not call for foreign military intervention, as happened in Libya.
"We will not put forward a new initiative. We will put forward to the Security Council the Arab initiative and Arab resolutions," Hamad said. "We are not speaking about military intervention."
The 22-member League has also suspended Syria's membership and imposed sanctions, but it has been divided over whether to seek the help of the wider international community beyond the Arab world. Hamad's remarks after an Arab ministerial committee meeting in Qatar indicated that the camp objecting to outside intervention may be getting smaller.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said the only remaining point of disagreement with Syria is over some wording in the plan calling for the protection of "Syrian civilians." Syria wants that changed to "Syrian citizens" since many of those killed in the turmoil have been regime soldiers who died in clashes with army defectors.
The Arab League objects to the change, arguing that soldiers and policemen can protect themselves since they are armed, Elaraby said.
"What is needed is the protection of civilians, not armed people. Let me be clear, this is the only point of disagreement," Elaraby said.
Syria has seen a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is headed toward civil war. The U.N. raised its death toll for the Syrian uprising substantially this week, saying more 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt began nine months ago.
Russia, which had opposed Security Council action on Syria, surprised council members on Thursday by introducing a draft resolution that "demands that all parties in Syria immediately stop any violence irrespective of where it comes from." The draft, however, does not mention sanctions, something that Western nations have been pushing.
The Arab League wants to see "that Arab resolutions are adopted rather than those of other nations," Hamad said in an apparent reference to the Russian draft.
The United States said it would only support the Russian draft if it were changed to make a clear distinction between the actions of peaceful protesters and those of the government.
An Iraqi delegation, meanwhile, met with Assad in Syria on Saturday to discuss ways of ending the crisis.
A member of the Iraqi delegation, Izzat Shahbandar, said the Syrian president informed them he is ready to open dialogue with the opposition, meet demands of opposition groups, abolish parts of the constitution and accept the results of future elections.
Shahbandar did not say what parts of the constitution Assad was ready to do away with, but some regime opponents have objected to section eight, which says the ruling Baath Party is the "leader of the nation and society."
Other opposition groups, however, say they will accept nothing less than regime change.
The Iraqi delegation will travel to Cairo, where the Arab League is headquartered, to raise Assad's comments with Arab League officials, Shahbandar said.
Many Iraqis fear that if civil war breaks out in Syria it could spread to Iraq, its eastern neighbor. Iraq was one of the few countries that abstained from voting in favor of Arab sanctions against Syria.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report from Baghdad.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue