Clashes and protests broke out across many parts of Syria Friday, further complicating a peace mission by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan who urged the government to lay down its weapons first to immediately end the country's yearlong crisis.
As angry protesters lamented inaction by Arab countries, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to work out how to help the opposition in talks with Saudi Arabia, the biggest advocate for arming the rebels against President Bashar Assad.
Her visit comes ahead of a 60-nation weekend gathering of the so-called "Friends of the Syrian People" in Istanbul. The meeting is an effort to find ways to aid Syria's fractured opposition, which has been frustrated by the government's military gains on the ground. The U.S. is seeking to unify Syria's opposition movement and find ways to further isolate Assad's regime.
Assad accepted a peace plan brokered by Annan earlier this week and promised Thursday to "spare no effort" to make sure it succeeds. But he demanded that armed forces battling his regime commit to halting violence as well.
Underscoring the challenges, activists reported shifting clashes, some close to the capital Damascus, and others in the northern Idlib province, the restive central province of Homs and the country's east. The reported death toll ranged from 34 to 42.
Thousands of angry protesters emerged from mosques following Friday prayers nationwide calling for Assad's ouster and protesting resolutions adopted by Arab leaders at a summit the day before in Baghdad. The leaders called for talks between the government and the opposition _ not for Assad to step down, which is the key opposition demand.
"Talks with the butcher?" read a banner carried by a child in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen.
"The most woeful weapon facing Syrians is the abandonment by Arabs and the silence of Muslims," read another carried by protesters in the northern town of Kfarrouma.
Syria's uprising began a year ago with peaceful anti-Assad protests, which were met with a fierce government crackdown. Since then, army defectors and protesters have taken up weapons, saying their only hope is to drive out Assad through force. The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
Many Syrians are frustrated at the lack of will for foreign military intervention in Syria and are deeply skeptical Assad will carry out Annan's peace plan, saying the president has accepted it just to win time while his forces continue their bloody campaign to crush the uprising.
The leader of the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Friday it has now become clear that the only solution in Syria is a political one that includes Assad himself.
"The only thing on the table today is a political solution based on dialogue between the government and the opposition and a consensus on serious and real reforms and their implementation," he said in a speech south of Beirut. "This is what would save Syria, and the region along with it."
For the U.S. and its allies, Syria is proving an especially murky conflict with no easy solutions. Assad's regime is one of Washington's clearest foes, a government that has long been closely allied with Iran and anti-Israel groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Gulf countries are eager to see Assad's fall in hopes of breaking Syria out of its alliance with their regional rival, Shiite-majority Iran.
Also Friday, the Obama administration expanded sanctions against top members of Assad's military and security apparatus.
The Treasury Department placed Syrian Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha, army deputy chief of staff Munir Adanov and the head of Assad's presidential security unit Zuhayr Shalish on a blacklist that freezes any assets they may have in U.S. jurisdictions. It also bars Americans from doing business with the three men.
Assad himself and a number of others in his inner circle have already been targeted by U.S. sanctions as the regime stepped up its brutal repression of an opposition uprising.
Clinton, meanwhile, began talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, then met with King Abdullah in his palace in Riyadh, along with top Saudi intelligence and security officials, according to the Saudi official news agency.
Annan's plan calls for an immediate, two-hour halt in fighting everyday to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations. The plan also outlines a complete cease-fire, but that will take more time because Syria must first move troops and equipment out of cities and towns.
"The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side," Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva. "We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith. ... The deadline is now."
The Local Coordination Committees activist network said 42 people were killed Friday, including 13 in the town of Quriya in the eastern Deir el-Zour province. There, security forces opened fire to disperse anti-government protesters, triggering a shootout and fierce clashes with local rebels in the area.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 34. It was not possible to reconcile the two figures.
Activists also said government forces clashed with defectors in fierce fighting in the suburbs of Damascus, mostly between the towns of Zamalka and Arbeen.
Associated Press writer John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.