By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - Gulf officials expressed hope Sunday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would finally sign an Arab League peace aimed at ending a crackdown on protests and averting civil war.
After six weeks of Syrian stalling, Qatar said it had information Assad would sign the plan, which calls for withdrawing the army from towns that have turned against him, freeing thousands of political prisoners, starting dialogue with the opposition and letting monitors into the country.
"We have information that indicates that he will sign the initiative. If this is true or not true we'll see," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told journalists on the sidelines of a meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh, in remarks carried by al-Arabiya Television.
Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah said: "We are optimistic that Syria will join the Arab League in signing the protocol, which is ready now, within 24 hours."
"That is what we hope for. If not, the Arab League foreign ministers will meet Wednesday to consider measures that might be taken in the future," he said in Riyadh.
The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and announced sanctions over Assad's refusal so far to sign up to its peace plan.
Arab ministers are set to meet later this week and could decide to submit their plan to the U.N. Security Council, making it a potential basis for wider international action.
Armed resistance has emerged in the last two months, alongside a peaceful protest movement that began in March inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.
Loyalist forces, including a pro-Assad militia, have reportedly taken scores of casualties from insurgents in the last few weeks, especially in the northwestern province of Idlib near Turkey and in the central region of Homs.
Sectarian killings have occurred in Homs, a city of one million people, 140 km (88 miles) north of Damascus, between members of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and Sunnis, who are the majority in Syria.
Assad, 46, has ruled Syria since inheriting power from his late father in 2000. He says his forces are fighting insurgents backed by foreign powers and that his critics are serving a conspiracy to sow sectarian strife in the country of 21 million at the heart of the Arab Middle East.
He told an Iraqi delegation Saturday that it was in Syria's interest "for the world to know what is going on away from misinformation and the turning of facts on their head, which aims to foil any prospect of a solution."
REPORTED KILLINGS, DEFECTIONS
Events on the ground in Syria are difficult to verify as the government does not allow most independent journalists.
Troops shot dead six civilians and one conscript Sunday in raids in Homs and Idlib, according to activist groups. A campain of arrests and house-to-house raids expanded in Damascus suburbs and in towns to the south of the capital, during which 10 people were killed last week and hundreds were arrested.
The official state news agency said a vehicle being used by what it described as terrorists to transport explosives blew up in Homs Saturday, killing two militants.
In Palmyra, home to famed Roman-era ruins in the desert southeast of Homs, several security personnel defected after six protesters were injured in firing by security forces on a demonstration in the town, activist groups said.
They said a group of soldiers also defected from guard posts at the notorious Palmyra Prison, where hundreds of Assad's father's opponents were killed in the 1980s.
Fighting erupted between deserters and a garrison stationed near the jail. Armoured vehicles fired heavy machineguns at residential neighborhoods, activists said.
"The people are responding by shouting 'God is greater' from their homes," a resident of the town, who gave his name as Mohammad and works in the now-moribund tourism industry, told Reuters by phone.
The United Nations says Assad's crackdown on protests inspired by uprisings across the Arab world this year has killed more than 5,000 people. Authorities blame armed gangs for the violence and say 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed.
An Arab ministerial committee on Syria has recommended Arab foreign ministers, who will meet in Egypt Wednesday, discuss asking the U.N. Security Council to adopt their peace plan.
Long-time Syrian ally and arms supplier Russia took a step closer to the Western position Thursday when it presented a surprise draft resolution at the United Nations which stepped up its criticism of the bloodshed in Syria.
The opposition Syrian National Council met in Tunisia on Saturday, the first anniversary of the self-immolation of Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi, the incident that set off the wave of revolts around the Arab world.
(Additional reporting by Amena Bakr in Riyadh and Erika Solomon in Beirut)