REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- The Arab League is considering seeking U.N. Security Council backing for a a long-stalled regional initiative aimed at ending Syria’s bloody crackdown on dissent, Qatar’s foreign minister said Saturday.
The proposal comes after Syria repeatedly flouted deadlines to agree to observers to monitor compliance with the league-negotiated peace plan, which calls for a halt to hostilities, the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas and dialogue with the opposition.
Arab foreign ministers will meet in Cairo on Wednesday to consider asking the Security Council to adopt the plan, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani told reporters after a meeting of a league ministerial committee in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
The 22-member regional bloc has been divided over whether to ask the U.N. to intercede in Syria, with some nations concerned that it could set the stage for the kind of military intervention that helped topple President Moammar Kadafi in Libya.
"We are not talking about military action, but we will ask the Security Council to adopt the Arab initiative," Jassim said, according to wire service reports.
This week, Syria’s longtime ally Russia circulated a draft Security Council resolution calling on all sides to suspend hostilities. Russia and China had previously used their veto power to block a Western-backed resolution condemning Syria for its handling of the 9-month-old uprising, saying it was one-sided.
Jassim said the Arab League wanted to see that "Arab resolutions are adopted rather than those of other nations."
Iraq, which has thousands of refugees in Syria, sent its national security advisor to the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Saturday to discuss ways to resolve the crisis with President Bashar Assad. Arab foreign ministers called off a meeting Saturday to decide their next move while talks continue.
The repeated delays have frustrated protesters in Syria, who took to the streets by the thousands Friday under the banner: "The Arab League is killing us."
Last month, the league suspended Syria and approved punishing sanctions in a bid to persuade Damascus to comply with its peace plan.
Syria, which maintains it is committed to the plan, has said it is willing to sign a protocol for observers subject to conditions, including the lifting of regional sanctions.
But there has been no sign that the crackdown is easing.
Security forces killed at least 20 people Saturday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition group, put the toll as high as 41, including eight military defectors.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of major protests in March, a figure disputed by the government. Syrian officials blame the bloodshed on what they describe as armed terrorist gangs, incited and supported from abroad, which they say have killed more than 1,100 security force members.
The violence has escalated in recent months as a growing number of military defectors and others take up arms to defend their communities against security forces.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency said a number of "terrorists" were arrested and others killed in clashes with security forces Saturday in the restive provinces of Homs and Idlib. A lieutenant colonel was also killed in a roadside bombing in Idlib, according to SANA.
Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria, making it virtually impossible to verify either side’s claims.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, right, arrives for an Arab League committee meeting in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday to discuss the situation in Syria. Credit: Osama Faisal/Associated Press