Beirut, Lebanon – Despite a continuing government crackdown, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of several Syrian cities on Friday, as protesters seemed intent on showing visiting Arab League monitors the extent of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.
Activists said that soldiers opened fire on several of the demonstrations, killing or injuring protesters in Hama and the Damascus suburb of Douma. Al Jazeera television showed live footage of what appeared to be tens of thousands of protesters in Homs, where activists said observers were visiting several neighborhoods.
A protester in Dara’a, who reported huge demonstrations, said: “We want to show the Arabs and the world that we are peaceful protesters, not criminals or armed gangs,” he said. “The coming days and weeks will prove our statements, not the regime’s story.”
Although peaceful protests continue in cities across the country, the opposition has been joined in recent months by increasing numbers of armed men — including army defectors — who have attacked government installations and soldiers.
On Friday, the rebel Free Syrian Army, a militia of defectors, said that it had halted its offensive against government targets for the month-long mission by the Arab League monitors. The leader of the rebel group, Col. Riad al- al-As’aad, told Reuters that the group had halted attacks since the observers arrived last week.
His claim seemed to be contradicted by a video posted on the Internet on Wednesday that showed armed gunmen firing on a government convoy. One of the men in the video held up a sign saying the men belonged to the Free Syrian Army. Activists later said that four soldiers were killed in the attack.
The show of popular strength on Friday came despite mounting misgivings about the much-anticipated observer mission.
On Thursday, a prominent Syrian dissident, Haytham Manna, who has supported the observers, called for the delegation’s leader to be replaced or have his powers reduced. The leader, Lt. Gen. Muhammed al-Dabi of Sudan, has become a lightning rod for complaints about the team. Human rights activists say his credentials — including time as the chief of a military intelligence branch in Sudan that has been accused of atrocities — make him a poor choice for the job.
In a statement, Mr. Manna said he was “surprised” by the choice of Mr. Dabi for the Arab League mission, though he did not refer to him by name. “We know his history and his shallow experience in this area,” Mr. Manna said. “I call for the Secretariat of the Arab League to work quickly to save the observers’ mission.”
The observers are supposed to monitor promises by the government to withdraw its forces from populated areas and release political prisoners.
A surge of violence in recent days has almost completely eclipsed the observers’ work. Activists have complained that government attacks have accelerated and that security forces have tried to mislead the observers by dressing soldiers in police uniforms and using other subterfuges.
“We were almost sure the regime wouldn’t change with the presence of the observers,” said Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the Local Coordinating Committees, which guide the antigovernment demonstrations. But, he added: “We are cooperating. Closing the door is wrong.”