Galloway heaps praise on Syrian regime

GEORGE Galloway has praised the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, for his dignity, referring to him as the last of the Arab leaders and his country as the last fortress against western aggressors.

In a speech that will incense Syrian democracy campaigners, the former Glasgow MP urged Syrians to take pride in the Baathist authoritarian, who inherited rule from his father, Hafez Assad.

An anticipated UN report into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, would "frame" Syria, Mr Galloway told an audience at the University of Damascus in a highly charged lecture.

"All dignified people in the world, whether Arabs or Muslims or others with dignity, are very proud of the speech made by president Bashar al-Assad a few days ago here in Damascus," he said.

"For me he is the last Arab ruler, and Syria is the last Arab country. It is the fortress of the remaining dignity of the Arabs, and that's why I'm proud to be here."

The Respect MP, who formerly sat for Labour in Glasgow, has some track record for praising isolated leaders: in 1994 he travelled to Baghdad and "saluted" Saddam Hussein's courage.

He was thrown out of the Labour Party for his opposition to the Iraq war and remarks describing Tony Blair and George Bush as "wolves".

In his latest speech, broadcast on al-Jazeera, Mr Galloway said Iraqi resistors were defeating US soldiers on their soil.

"No American soldier who leaves his barracks can be sure that he will come back alive," he said, to applause.

US forces could not control a single street in Iraq, which was why they would not dare invade Syria, he said.

"America is losing the war in Iraq and she cannot dream of starting a new war in Syria," he said.

"If they dared to invade Syria, every dignified person in the country would fight them exactly as the people of Iraq are fighting them now."

Syrians would rise up and fight Americans in the same way that the British had resisted Nazi occupiers, he said.

"Of course there were collaborators in Britain who would have collaborated with Hitler if he had landed, but the vast majority of British people would have fought Hitler, with their teeth, if necessary, because no free people will allow itself to be occupied by a foreign army, and Syria is a free people and will never agree to such an invasion."

But such a war was not likely to be instigated as President George Bush's power was ebbing away, while, in Britain, "these are the final days of Tony Blair", Mr Galloway said.

"I say to you, citizens of the last Arab country, this is a time for courage, for unity, for wisdom, for determination, to face these enemies with the dignity your president has shown, and I believe, God willing, we will prevail and triumph," he added.

Mr Galloway's speech was well received by his audience of Syrians, who feel aggrieved at the demonisation of their country.

Syria has been blamed for a string of terrorist offences, from orchestrating suicide bombings in Israel to fuelling the insurgency in Iraq by allowing fighters across the border.

The latest allegations, linking Syria to the Hariri assassination, were emphatically denied by Mr Assad, whose regime is facing an investigation by the UN.

In his lecture, Mr Galloway referred to Detlev Mehlis, the UN investigator probing the killing, as someone who had a "record of framing Arab countries".

Mr Mehlis had framed Libya for the 1986 bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin, Mr Galloway said.

Three of those sentenced for the attack worked at the Libyan embassy in what was then East Germany.

Although Libya has accepted responsibility and paid compensation, Mr Galloway cast doubts in a remark that will give succour to conspiracy theorists.

"Everybody should be aware that the verdict of the Mehlis inquiry was already fixed before he began his investigation," Mr Galloway said. "This murder of Hariri was deliberately planned and executed precisely to implicate Syria and to set in train the events which have unfolded."