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(photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian President Bashar Assad lashed out at Western criticism and pressure Thursday, contending that Syria was being punished for its uncompromising Arab stand on Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinians.
Speaking at Damascus University , Assad called for a timetable for the withdrawal of US-led coalition forces in Iraq, but also stressed that Syria condemns terror attacks in the neighboring country and was keen on sealing its border from infiltrators.
Syria has come under intense pressure from the United States and the United Nations since the February assassination of a former leader of Lebanon.
A Security Council resolution has demanded that Syria cooperate with an international probe into the assassination of the former leader, Rafik Hariri. The UN commission wants to question six Syrian officials.
But Assad said he believes his country faces a coordinated media campaign because of its support for Lebanon's anti-Israeli Hizbullah guerrillas and Palestinian militants and its opposition to the US-led war in Iraq.
"Had there been a compromise ... there wouldn't have been a problem," he said.
On political reforms, which the United States and UN also have pressed for, he said, "Under the pretext of political reforms, they want political blackmail."
Thousands of people waving Syrian flags gathered in and outside an auditorium at Damascus University as Assad arrived for the speech. Many chanted "God, Syria, only Bashar."
The stadium was decorated with Syrian flags and posters of Bashar. Security was tight and several ambulances were parked nearby.
A Syrian judicial committee investigating the Feb. 14 Hariri murder has begun questioning the Syrian officials and has banned them from leaving the country. The six officials are believed to include Gen. Assef Shawkat, the Syrian president's brother-in-law and the chief of Syria's military intelligence service.