Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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May 11, 2014

Syria opens presidential campaign as war rages on

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — On billboards and in posters taped to car windows, new portraits of President Bashar Assad filled the streets of Damascus on Sunday as Syria officially opened its presidential campaign despite a crippling civil war that has devastated the country and left large chunks of territory outside of government control.

The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the June 3 election as a sham designed to lend Assad, who is widely expected to win another seven-year term, a veneer of electoral legitimacy. The government, meanwhile, has touted the vote as the political solution to the conflict.

The election comes more than three years into a revolt against Assad's rule that has killed more than 150,000 people and forced more than 2.5 million to seek refuge abroad. The war has destroyed entire cities and towns, left the economy in tatters, and set alight sectarian hatreds in a society once known for its tolerance.

With the country so bitterly divided, it remains unclear how the government intends to hold a credible vote in the middle of the conflict. But officials have brushed aside such doubts, and have forged ahead undeterred.

Assad faces two other candidates in the race: Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both members of the so-called internal opposition tolerated by the government. But the men are relatively unknown, and neither has the full weight of the state behind him like Assad does.

That distinction was on full display Sunday on the streets of Damascus.

On the bustling Thawra Street in the center of the city, two new Assad billboards greeted the crowds below. One shows Assad, dressed in a gray suit and blue shirt, along with the word "Together." The second billboard just reads "Together," along with the president's signature.

Several cars flying national flags and photos of the president blasted nationalist songs as they cruised the capital's streets in a show of support for Assad, who has ruled the country since taking over from his father, Hafez, in 2000.

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