Syria's government has endorsed a draft law that it says will allow the formation of political parties alongside President Bashar Assad's ruling Baath Party, part of a series of promised reforms that the opposition has dismissed as largely symbolic.

The multi-party bill, approved by the Cabinet late Sunday, follows other concessions Assad has made as part of his efforts to quell more than four months of protests against his regime. He has coupled his pledges of reform with a deadly crackdown on protesters that activists say has killed at least 1,600 people.

The revolt has only grown more defiant in the face of the government response, and protesters have shifted their demands from political change to the outright downfall of the regime.

The draft law, which still needs parliamentary approval, would allow the establishment of any political party, which is not based on religious or tribal lines, or discriminates due to ethnicity, gender or race, the state-run news agency said.

Assad's ruling Baath party, which calls for "unity, freedom and socialism," has held a monopoly over political life in Syria for decades.

A key demand of the protest movement is the abolishment of Article 8 in the Syrian constitution which states that the Baath party is the leader of the state and society. Lawmaker Mohammad Habash said Monday that the bill still needs to be endorsed by Parliament and will likely be presented for debate at the next session on August 7.

He said the bill in itself was positive, but some articles of the constitution must be amended first, including Article 8.

Assad, who inherited power in 2000 after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad, has made a series of overtures to try to ease the growing outrage. He lifted the decades-old emergency laws that gave the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge, granted Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds -- a long-ostracized minority -- and issued several pardons. But the concessions failed to sap the momentum of the protest movement, which dismissed them as either symbolic or far too late.

As a first step, the protesters are demanding an immediate end to the security crackdown and the release of thousands of people who have been detained in recent months. The government, however, has shown no signs of letting up in its efforts to crush the uprising. On Sunday, Syrian troops stormed a northwestern village and made sweeping arrests in the region and in the capital Damascus. Also Sunday, President Bashar Assad replaced the governor for the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, which has seen intense protests calling for the downfall of the regime. Since the uprising began, Assad has removed several governors in tense provinces.

NATO Warns Turkey Against Purchase of Chinese, Russian Air Defense Systems

Turkey would have to operate without NATO's intelligence information on incoming ballistic missiles if it chooses to buy Chinese or Russian systems for its national air and missile defense program, officials of the Western alliance have warned.

Participating in the ongoing competition to win Turkey's national air and missile contract are the U.S. partnership between Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, with their Patriot air defense systems; Russia's Rosoboronexport, marketing the S300; China's CPMIEC (China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corp.), offering its HQ-9; and the Italian-French Eurosam, maker of the SAMP/T Aster 30. Turkey is planning to make its selection late this year or early next.

Many Western officials and experts say that since the Russian and the Chinese systems are not compatible with NATO systems, their potential eventual victory might provide them with access to classified NATO information and, as a result, may compromise NATO's procedures.

But despite this criticism, Turkey so far has ruled against expelling the Chinese and Russian options, saying there is no need to exclude them from the Turkish competition.

One Western expert countered that "if, say, the Chinese win the competition, their systems will be in interaction, directly or indirectly, with NATO's intelligence systems, and this may lead to the leak of critical NATO information to the Chinese, albeit inadvertently. So, this is dangerous."

"NATO won't let that happen," another Western official told the Hürriyet Daily News on Monday. "If the Chinese or the Russians win the Turkish contest, their systems will have to work separately. They won't be linked to NATO information systems."

This was the first time NATO has strongly urged Turkey against choosing the non-Western systems.

"One explanation is that Turkey itself doesn't plan to [ultimately] select the Chinese or Russian alternatives, but still is retaining them among their options to put pressure on the Americans and the Europeans to [lower] their prices," the Western expert said.

Turkey's long-range air and missile defense systems program (T-Loramids) has been designed to counter both enemy aircraft and missiles.

NATO Missile Shield

Turkey's national program is totally separate and independent from NATO's own plans to design, develop and build its own collective missile shield.

The Western alliance decided during a leaders' summit meeting in Lisbon in November last year to create the collective missile shield against potential incoming ballistic missiles from rogue countries. Ankara agreed to the decision only after the alliance accepted a Turkish request that Iran or other countries would not be specifically mentioned as potential sources of threats.

NATO now is seeking to deploy a special X-band radar in Turkish territory for the early detection of missiles launched from the region.

Senior U.S. and Turkish officials discussed the matter in mid-July in Istanbul, on the sidelines of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and both sides reported progress toward an eventual deployment of the X-band radar on Turkish soil.

Ideally, in the event of a launch of a ballistic missile from a rogue state, it would be detected by the X-band radar, and U.S.-made SM-3 interceptors – based on U.S. Aegis destroyers to be deployed in the eastern Mediterranean and later possibly in Romania – would then be fired to hit the incoming missile mid-flight.

Soldiers Killed in PKK Clash Laid to Rest

Four soldiers killed over the weekend in clashes with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, were laid to rest Monday in their hometowns.

The ceremonies for noncommissioned officer Erhan Gül and Sgt. Ali Öztürk were held in their hometown of Gaziantep. Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Sahin and Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Vice Chairman Hüseyin Çelik attended Gül's ceremony.

The third victim of the same clash, noncommissioned officer Sadık Güllü, had his ceremony held in his hometown of Kırıkkale. Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, a ruling party deputy from Kırıkkale, attended the ceremony.

The three soldiers were shot dead by PKK members while returning from a dinner in the southeastern province of Mardin's İkipinar village to their military gendarmerie post. All three died at the scene of the attack. Gül had recently been appointed to another city and the dinner was reported to be his farewell. Güllü was preparing for his retirement.

Gendarmerie and armed forces have started an operation in the area to find the culprits behind the ambush.

Lt. Süleyman Özoğlu, who died due to injuries sustained in clashes with the PKK on Friday in Hakkari, was laid to rest in his hometown of Balıkesir on Monday. Thousands of people participated in the ceremony, many shouting anti-PKK slogans.

U.S. Dollars for Promotion of Business in Afghanistan in Taliban Hands

U.S. government funds earmarked ostensibly to promote business in Afghanistan have landed in Taliban hands under a $2.16 billion transportation contract, The Washington Post reported late Sunday.

Citing the results of a year-long military-led investigation, the newspaper said U.S. and Afghan efforts to address the problem have been slow, and all eight of the trucking firms involved remain on U.S. payroll. Moreover, the Pentagon extended the contract for six months last March, the report said. The investigation found "documented, credible evidence ... of involvement in a criminal enterprise or support for the enemy" by four of the eight prime contractors, the paper noted. According to The Post, investigators followed a $7.4 million payment to one of the eight companies, which in turn paid a subcontractor, which hired other subcontractors to supply trucks.

Intelligence officials then traced $3.3 million, withdrawn in 27 transactions from the commander's account, that was transferred to insurgents in the form of weapons, explosives and cash, the paper said.

Meanwhile Ryan Crocker, the new top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, was sworn in Monday at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He says the U.S. is not rushing to leave the country and cautions that what happens in the months ahead will have far-reaching consequences across the globe.

"It is a time for us to step back and for the Afghans to step forward, as they're doing. There can be no clearer evidence than last week's successful security transition," he said.

NATO forces also say that one of their helicopters has crashed in eastern Afghanistan. According to NATO, rescue forces came under fire from insurgents, but had safely moved all crew and passengers to a nearby base by early morning. An Italian soldier, meanwhile, was killed and two others injured on Monday during an operation in Afghanistan, the military said. The soldier came under attack during a joint patrol with Afghan forces in the Murghab valley in the northwestern Badghis province.

Crude Oil Pipeline Ships Nearly 1,240 Million Barrels Since 2006

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline has pumped nearly 1,240 million barrels of oil from Haydar Aliyev Terminal at Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan since it became operational in 2006, a pipeline official has said.

Nearly 1,238 million barrels of oil have been loaded on 1,595 tankers since June 2, 2006. The capacity of BTC crude oil pipeline was up from 1 million barrels to 1.2 million barrels a day.

A 1,768-kilometre-long crude oil pipeline from the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil field in the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, BTC is described as the energy project of the century; it has the capacity to transport a million barrels of crude oil per day and 50 million tons per year.

The first oil pumped from the Baku end of the pipeline on May 10, 2005 reached Ceyhan on May 28, 2006.

The first oil was loaded at the Ceyhan Marine Terminal onto a tanker named British Hawthorn, which sailed away from the port on June 4, 2006 with about 600,000 barrels (95,000 m3) of crude oil.

Central Bank in 'Double Intervention'

In an effort to halt the sharp depreciation of the Turkish currency, the Central Bank on Monday intervened in the markets, cutting its daily dollar purchases and flexing reserve requirements for foreign currency accounts.

The Central Bank's move, which took immediate effect, has brought a halt to the auctions, in which the Bank purchased as much as $30 million from the markets per day. Before the measures were announced, the U.S. dollar climbed to as high as 1.734 Turkish Liras, while the euro was trading at over 2.485 liras.

The dollar and the euro continued to remain at high levels, after brief declines to just over 1.70 liras and 2.45 liras, respectively. At 5:30 p.m., the greenback was trading at near 1.722 liras, up 7.2 percent since the start of July. The European single currency was trading at around 2.471 liras, up 5.8 percent in the same period. The second part of the measures involves cutting the reserve requirements for banks in foreign currency deposits.

The second part of the measures involves cutting the reserve requirements for banks in foreign currency deposits – a move that means lenders will have to park less foreign currency at the Central Bank coffers. The rate for one year and more maturity deposits was cut from 11 percent to 10 percent, while the cuts for up to three-year deposits and over three-year deposits were by 1.5 and 2 percentage points, respectively.

The measures will provide an extra liquidity of $590 million to the markets, according to the Central Bank.

"It appears that the economy management will support an export-based growth model with this currency policy," said Banu Kıvcı Tokalı of Destek Securities.

A top exporter said the current balances are positive.

"We think this level supports exports and moderates imports," Mehmet Büyükekşi, chairman of the Turkish Exporters' Assembly, told the Hürriyet Daily News. "For this correction to be balanced, the Central Bank is following the developments, showing that it will act if necessary."

Büyükekşi said he expects a policy mix of "less valuable currency and low interest rates." He also said the lira could depreciate further.

Rızanur Meral, chairman of the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey, or TUSKON, said importers are worried. "The repayment of their current debt [in foreign currencies] will create a huge burden. They also do not know how much they'll pay for new imports," Meral said. "Meanwhile, exporters have seized an important advantage that they've been awaiting for years."

"With the markets clearly losing faith in the current policies, there's a growing risk that the sharp slowdown in growth that we had penciled in for the second half of 2012-13 comes a little earlier than we have anticipated," said Neil Shearing, the senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics. "2012 could be the year the Turkish economy really disappoints."

Gold, the safe haven for investors during times of volatility, broke another record at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar as 24-carat gold bullion rose to 90.15 liras per gram. The benchmark Cumhuriyet gold was selling at 607 liras per coin. Gold also broke a new record in the global markets, as worries over the U.S. debt impasse continued. The precious metal surged to a record high above $1,620 an ounce, Reuters reported.

The Turkish Central Bank decision also helped lift equities, which had been battered by global and domestic concerns for some time. The Istanbul Stock Exchange's main ISE-100 index closed Monday at 61,047 points, up 2.1 percent. The index is down 9.7 percent since the start of the year, compared to a gain of 5.2 percent for the S&P 500 index.

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