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Arab League chief heads to U.N. over Syria

By Ayman Samir

CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby headed to New York on Sunday hoping to win support from the U.N. Security Council for a plan to end violence in Syria that calls on President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

Elaraby will brief the Security Council on Tuesday but the Arab initiative, which is backed by Western states, is facing resistance from Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the council with veto powers.

The league sent observers to Syria in December to monitor whether it was heeding an earlier plan that included a call to withdraw the military from residential areas. The pan-Arab body suspended their work on Saturday after violence mounted.

The monitors, depleted since Gulf states quit the mission, are being pulled back to Damascus, a step one league source said he expected would lead to a decision by Arab states to scrap the mission. Arab foreign ministers meet on February 5.

Elaraby, the league's secretary-general, will be joined in New York by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country heads the league's committee charged with following Syrian developments. Qatar and fellow Gulf Arab state Saudi Arabia have been leading efforts to put pressure on Assad.

"We will hold several meetings with representatives from members of the Security Council to obtain the council's support and agreement to the Arab initiative," Elaraby told reporters at Cairo airport shortly before leaving for New York.

Asked about China and Russia's reluctance to take new steps over Syria, Elaraby said he hoped the two nations would change their position. "There are contacts with China and Russia on this issue," he said.

He said the Arab monitors had gathered in Damascus and would not leave the Syrian capital until their status was decided.

INFLUENCING THE SECURITY COUNCIL

League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Ben Helli told reporters Arab foreign ministers meeting on February 5 would "take an appropriate decision on whether to support (the observer team), withdraw it or amend its mission."

A source in the observers operation room in league headquarters in Cairo said the head of the monitoring mission, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, was waiting for a decision from the Arab ministers on the fate of his team.

"I think personally that the Arab ministers will have no alternative to withdrawing the observers because the working conditions in Syria are extremely dangerous," the source said.

Thousands of people have been killed in a 10-month uprising against Assad's rule. Dabi, who had earlier said violence dipped after monitors arrived, said in his most recent report there had been an increase in violence in the period January 24-27.

Syria said it was surprised by the decision to suspend the monitoring work, describing the move as a bid to influence the Security Council and increase pressure for foreign intervention.

The Arab plan initially included demands for Damascus to pull the military out of residential areas, free political prisoners and start dialogue with the opposition. But Arab ministers, frustrated at the lack of progress, agreed on January 22 an initiative that called for Assad to step aside.

Some Arab states remain wary of stepping up sanctions or putting other pressure on Syria. Diplomats say some Arab states are also concerned that approaching the Security Council takes the issue out of Arab hands.

Elaraby said Algeria voiced reservations about the part of the league resolution related to informing the Security Council.

A diplomatic source from another Arab state told Reuters, regarding any move by the Security Council to impose sanctions: "If we review such cases in Iraq and other places, I think that kind of punishment didn't yield a lot."

Arabs imposed economic sanctions on Syria's government but diplomats say they have had limited impact because neighboring states such as Iraq and Lebanon did not implement them.

(Writing and additional reporting by Edmund Blair; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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