Edouard Guihaire, AFP
Last updated: 26 February, 2012

Clinton pledges US help for Tunisia reforms

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday condemned Syrian leaders and the soldiers supporting them as she wrapped up a tour of north Africa designed to encourage democratic reform in the region.

Speaking in the Moroccan capital Rabat, Clinton denounced the “brutal attacks” taking place in Syria and said the soldiers who backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were dishonouring themselves.

“The longer you support the regime’s campaign of violence against your brothers and sisters, the more it will stain your honour,” she said. Those who renounced violence would be viewed as heroes, she added.

Clinton’s comments came at the end of a three-day tour of north Africa that took in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first ignited, Algeria and Morocco.

Her message to all three countries was that Washington was ready to help them on the path of economic and democratic reform.

“So much has changed since my last visit (but) what has not changed is our commitment to our friendship,” Clinton said after talks with her Moroccan counterpart Saad Eddine Othmani.

She was referring to a new constitution adopted in July at the behest of King Mohammed VI, and to legislative polls that followed in November, won by moderate Islamists.

The Arab Spring started with the overthrow of Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and also saw the downfall of Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi in October.

In Algeria, it helped bring about the lifting of a 19-year-old state of emergency.

But 11 months of popular struggles in Syria have seen increasingly violent crackdowns on protests by Assad’s security forces.

More than 7,600 people have been killed, rights groups say, and on Saturday alone another 72 civilians were slain, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

But it would be a mistake for the US to arm rebels in Syria, she said in an interview with CBS television.

“We really don’t know who it is that would be armed,” she said, noting that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had expressed support for the Syrian rebels.

“Are we supporting Al-Qaeda in Syria?” she said. “Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?”

She had every sympathy for the plight of those caught up in the crackdown, she said.

“Sometimes, overturning brutal regimes takes time and costs lives. I wish it weren’t so,” she said.

Clinton said the international community’s strategy in the Syria crisis should focus on providing immediate humanitarian aid, increasing pressure on the Assad regime and helping to prepare the way for a democratic transition.

In the Moroccan city of Casablanca Sunday, 20,000 people marched to protest the Syrian regime’s crackdown, said organisers, some with banners calling on Assad to be tried before the International Criminal Court. Police put the numbers at 6,000.

Clinton on Sunday also addressed the recent unrest in Afghanistan, where six days of violent protests have left at least 30 people dead after copies of the Koran were incinerated in a disposal burn pit at a US military base.

“We deeply regret the incident … but we also believe that violence must stop and the hard work for building a more peaceful and secure Afghanistan must continue,” she said in Rabat.

A government source said two US advisors shot dead Saturday by an Afghan colleague had been mocking the protests.

NATO had responded by pulling its advisors out of Afghan government ministries on a day that also saw a protester killed and seven US soldiers wounded in a grenade attack on their base in northern Afghanistan.

Clinton’s north African tour began in Tunis on Friday when she took part in a “Friends of Syria” international gathering and held talks with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki.

In the Algerian capital Algiers on Saturday, Clinton met with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Her message to all three countries was the same, she said Saturday: “The people of the Maghreb are as talented, creative and hard working as people anywhere in the world.

“They need and deserve to make decisions on behalf of themselves because that is good for the dignity and rights of every individual and it’s good for every society.”

The Maghreb region comprises Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.