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Syria says it won't back down first; government resists call to withdraw troops immediately

Shaam News Network / Reuters

Demonstrators holding Kurdish, Syrian opposition and Qatari flags gather during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Qamishli on Friday.

Syria says a year-long revolt to topple President Bashar al-Assad is over, but it will keep its forces in cities to "maintain security" until it is safe to withdraw in line with a U.N.-backed peace deal.

The agreement proposed by United Nations-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan says the Syrian authorities must be first to withdraw troops, and stop violence immediately.

The United States and its Gulf Arab allies urged Annan on Saturday to set a timeline for "next steps" if the bloodshed persists. Saudi Arabia repeated a call for rebels to be armed.

Annan has said neither measure would be helpful. The former U.N. chief's mission has brought no respite in the killings

Syrian rebels are ready to stop fighting the moment the Syrian army withdraws its tanks, artillery and heavy weapons from opposition areas, a spokesman for Free Syrian Army commanders inside Syria said on Saturday.

"We cannot accept the presence of tanks and troops in armored vehicles among the people. We don't have a problem with the ceasefire. As soon as they remove their armored vehicles, the Free Syrian Army will not fire a single shot," Lt. Col, Qassim Saad al-Din told Reuters by telephone from Homs.

Opposition activists reported 21 people killed and five bodies found bearing signs of torture, including two children.

A protest singer in Kafr Ruma was killed when his house was raided. A young man and his sister were shot dead when state forces stormed their village, and a man died of gunshot wounded inflicted during a protest in Damascus

Despite the violence, Damascus says it has the upper hand.

"The battle to topple the state is over," Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi told Syria TV late on Friday. "Our goal now is to ensure stability and create a perspective for reform and development in Syria while preventing others from sabotaging the path of reform."

His assertion follows army victories over rebel strongholds in the cities of Hama, Homs and Idlib, and Assad's acceptance this week of Annan's plan that does not demand he step down.

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The political opposition remains divided and prospects of Western-led military intervention are close to zero.

Assad has endorsed Annan's six-point peace plan, which has the U.N. Security Council's unanimous backing, but Western leaders say the 46-year-old Syrian leader has broken similar promises before and must be judged by actions not words.

Assad's opponents have not yet formally accepted the plan.

They were due to meet the foreign ministers of allied Western powers, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on Sunday at a "Friends of Syria" conference in Turkey, which provides a safe haven for Syrian rebels

"It soon will be clear whether Iran's leaders are prepared to have a serious, credible discussion about their nuclear program, whether they are ready to start building the basis of a resolution to this very serious problem," Clinton told reporters. "It is up to Iran whether they are ready to make the right choice. ... What is certain is that Iran's window of opportunity to seek and obtain a peaceful resolution will not remain open forever."

After Clinton met Gulf foreign ministers in Riyadh on Saturday, they said Annan should set a timeline for unspecified measures should his efforts fail to halt the bloodletting.

"Given the urgency of the joint envoy's mission, (U.S. and Gulf ministers) urged the joint envoy to determine a timeline for next steps if the killing continues," a statement said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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