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US call for Assad departure imminent

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[August 18, 2011]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. officials say the Obama administration is ready to make an explicit call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to leave power and has notified Arab and European allies that an announcement is imminent.

Preparations are in place for the White House to issue a statement Thursday demanding that Assad step down, the officials said. This would be accompanied by an announcement of new sanctions on the Assad regime and followed by an on-camera appearance by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to reinforce the U.S. position, the officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Although the officials acknowledged the move is not likely to have any immediate impact on the Syrian regime's behavior, they said it would send a powerful signal that Assad is no longer welcome in the international community. And they noted that the additional sanctions would further boost pressure on Assad and his inner circle.

As Syrian protesters have called for an end to his regime, Assad has unleashed tanks and ground troops in an attempt to retake control in rebellious areas. The military assault has escalated dramatically since the start of the holy month of Ramadan in August, with Assad's forces killing hundreds and detaining thousands.

President Barack Obama, Clinton and top national security aides have previously said that Assad has "lost his legitimacy" as a leader and that Syria would be "better off" without him. But they had not specifically demanded that he step down.

Thursday's expected new formulation of policy will make it clear that Assad can no longer be a credible reformist and has to leave, the officials said.

The administration had planned to make the announcement last week but postponed it largely at the request of Syria's neighbor Turkey, which asked for more time to try to convince Assad to reform, and because Clinton and other officials argued it was important to build a global consensus that Assad must go. Clinton on Tuesday publicly questioned the effectiveness of the United States acting alone.

"It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," she said. "OK, fine, what's next? If other people say it, if Turkey says it, if (Saudi) King Abdullah says it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it."

Since then, however, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has compared Assad to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi for refusing to heed calls to change. Turkey has joined calls for Gadhafi to leave power and Erdogan said Wednesday he had personally spoken to Assad and sent his foreign minister to Damascus, but "despite all of this, they are continuing to strike civilians."

In addition, Tunisia on Wednesday recalled its ambassador from Syria, following the lead of several other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, that the U.S. has been lobbying to show displeasure with Assad.

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In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Assad demanding the immediate end of all military operations and mass arrests, according to a statement issued late Wednesday by the U.N. In response, Assad said military and police operations had stopped, the statement said.

But the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which documents anti-regime protests, said Thursday that Syrian troops had shot dead nine people in the central city of Homs on Wednesday night. Another rights group said Assad's crackdown also killed nine people elsewhere in Syria on Wednesday.

A high-level U.N. human rights team said Thursday that Syria's crackdown "may amount to crimes against humanity" and should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

The investigators say they found "a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population." In their report, they said they had compiled a confidential list of 50 alleged perpetrators at "various levels" of Assad's government. Syria insists it is rooting out terrorists but rights groups accuse Syrian troops of killing more than 1,800 civilians since mid-March.

The steps by the U.N. and other nations appear to match the Obama administration's stated strategy of coordination.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was "working on a careful set of actions and statements ... and working with our partners on the same."

"Political steps, economic steps are strongest when they are together," she told reporters. "Words and sanctions should go together, and ideally, they should go in concert with others."

[Associated Press; By MATTHEW LEE]

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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