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A rare glimpse inside pro- and anti-government protests in Syria

From Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 3:37 PM EST, Tue January 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Opposition protester: "Al-Assad is killing us" because "we want to be free"
  • Injured demonstrators say they won't go to government hospitals, fearing arrest
  • Al-Assad supporter: "He is a peaceful president ... he is a peaceful man"
  • If al-Assad is forced to go, "it will be chaos," one man says

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- At a funeral for a Syrian man allegedly killed by government forces, a grief-stricken sister wails uncontrollably.

Mourners carried her brother's casket Monday before thousands of anti-regime protesters, whose passionate anger against a brutal government crackdown was palpable.

"The situation is very bad. We only want to be like you, like the Western people. We want to be free people," one mourner told CNN as the dead man's casket passed nearby. "Look at him, 32 years (old). ... The government is responsible. (President) Bashar al-Assad is responsible. Bashar al-Assad is killing us only because we want to be like you."

CNN followed observers from the Arab League to this funeral and a demonstration a few miles outside of Damascus for a rare opportunity to meet some of the protesters wanting to overthrow al-Assad.

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One man partially covered his face before speaking on camera.

"I'm afraid when I'm talking to you right now. Why? Because I'm going to lift this scarf and go into my home, and I'm not 100% sure that I'm going to be safe," he said. "Because if not today, if not tomorrow, they will arrest me."

He said the defiance here is possible because of the presence of two orange-jacketed Arab League monitors on a fact-finding mission in Syria.

The league has called on al-Assad's regime to stop violence against civilians, free political detainees, remove tanks and weapons from cities and allow outsiders, including the international news media, to travel freely around Syria.

Q&A: Syria's divisions deepen

Al-Assad has denied the notion his regime commanded forces to fire on protesters, saying there "were no orders by any departments of the state to fire on people."

But many of the protesters here pushed forward to show injuries they say were inflicted by government forces. They say they can't go to government-run hospitals because they fear being arrested.

As the Arab League monitors leave the anti-government protest, they are blocked on a road by a pro-government activists. A banner emblazoned with al-Assad's image stretches across the street, and demonstrators wave Syrian flags and pictures of the president.

And it's not the only pro-government rally in town. Elsewhere, festive crowds clapped and danced to amplified music -- sometimes dancing along with government troops.

Demonstrators here say they trust the president. And they believe the government line that the opposition is fabricated.

"This opposition is not legal or real," one woman said. "I think large masses of it are fake."

Few here will talk about the danger of Syria imploding into sectarian chaos. But one American woman and her Syrian husband are exceptions.

If al-Assad is forced to go, "it will be chaos," the husband said. "It will be big, big chaos. He is the security."

"He is a peaceful president," his wife chimed in. "He likes to see all religions get along. He's a peaceful man."

For now, al-Assad remains in control -- for the most part. But it's hard to imagine his supporters and opponents can be kept apart much longer.

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