The United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's visit to Syria ended without a deal, but he still expressed optimism after meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a second day Sunday, ahead of his visit to Ankara scheduled for Monday.

"It's going to be tough. It's going to be difficult but we must have hope," the former UN chief told reporters in Damascus following his meeting with al-Assad, Reuters reported. "I am optimistic for several reasons. The situation is so bad and so dangerous that none of us can afford to fail."

Annan said he had left "concrete proposals" with al-Assad for a way out of a conflict that has so far cost thousands of lives.

"You have to start by stopping the killing and the misery and the abuses that are going on today, and then give time [for a] political settlement," he said.

Annan To Meet Erdogan

After his talks in Damascus, Annan is expected to visit Qatar over an agreement between the Arab League and Russia on setting up a mechanism for "objective monitoring" in Syria. He will arrive in Turkey on Monday to have discussions with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu before leaving the country, diplomatic sources told the Hürriyet Daily News Sunday. Annan will convey his observations and discuss grounds to facilitate humanitarian assistance to Syria, sources said.

Annan expressed his will to visit Syrian refugee camps in Hatay, but has not officially confirmed this yet due to his tight schedule, sources said. He is also likely to meet with Syrian opposition representatives in Turkey, a Syrian dissident told the Daily News.

Khaled Khoja, Turkey representative of the opposition Syrian National Council, told the Daily News that they were firm on asking for an Arab League road map and asked for help from the international community for that. Khoja said the Council would deliver the following conditions to Annan: There should be removal of soldiers from the streets in Syria, the international media and NGOs should be allowed in the country, al-Assad should hand over office to his deputy, and free elections should take place.

Al-Assad told Annan on Saturday that "terrorists" spreading chaos and instability were blocking any political solution, according to the state news agency SANA. But it added that al-Assad had also told Annan he would help in "any honest effort to find a solution."

Syria Agrees on Relief with Amos

The United Nations-Arab League envoy's visit comes after UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos left Damascus following a hard-won agreement with the Syrian administration mission to secure relief access to protest centers, such as Syria's third-largest city Homs.

"Amos was seeking to further cooperation with neighboring countries to Syria on humanitarian access, and we expressed Turkey's readiness to contribute," a Turkish diplomat said. Speaking in Ankara on Friday, Amos said a "joint preliminary humanitarian assessment mission" had been agreed in order to provide assistance to people in urgent need of it.

Meanwhile, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said if there is to be a foreign intervention to Syria to stop the violence, it should be led by Turkey and conducted by neighboring countries, in an interview with the Anatolia News Agency. He said such theories were discussed during the Friends of Syria meeting that took place in Tunis recently. At the next meeting, which will be held in Istanbul, practical measures should be discussed, Jebali said.

Israeli Gas Deal Tied to Resolution of Mavi Marmara Dispute

Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız has said Turkey can facilitate the transportation of natural gas Greek Cyprus and Israel are currently working to extract in the eastern Mediterranean to northwestern markets only if, and when, Israel agrees to Turkey's demands regarding the killing of eight of its citizens together with a United States citizen of Turkish origin onboard an aid ship two years ago.

"All the feasibility studies conducted are now pointing to Turkey [as the most suitable transportation route]. If we did not have the Mavi Marmara issue with Israel, there could have been many joint projects between us -- and the transportation of natural gas [from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe] would be at the top of the list of those projects," Yıldız said Sunday, speaking to reporters in the southern province of Antalya. "And that would have been only right to do. Yet that natural gas pipeline is not worthy of nine lives we lost."

Faced with resistance when trying to intercept it, Israeli naval commandos killed eight Turks as well as 19-year old Furkan Doğan, a U.S. citizen of Turkish ethnicity, onboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara aid ship in international waters on May 31, 2010. The Turkish government and people have been infuriated with the operation and its deadly result, but Israel refused to apologize for it, perceiving it as an insult to its national pride. It also did not agree to pay compensation to the families of the victims. Turkey has accordingly imposed sanctions on Israel, expelling the Israeli ambassador and suspending military agreements with the Middle Eastern country.

"There is only one way to transport this natural gas. The seabed of the Mediterranean is not ideal for a pipeline. Turkey, on the other hand, has a pipeline infrastructure. Why should it not be used for that purpose? Should we receive an offer, we can speak of such a partnership only when the political foundation is strengthened for it. Energy cannot carry the burden of politics," Yıldız said.

Teaming up with the Greek Cypriots and Israelis, the American Noble Energy company is leading natural gas exploration efforts in the eastern Mediterranean. It estimates that there are more than 25 trillion cubic meters in Israeli waters and up to 230 billion cubic meters in Cypriot waters to the west. Ankara, however, adamantly opposes any Greek Cypriot oil and gas search that denies Turkish Cypriots, who have a separate government in the north of the island that is recognized only by Turkey, what it contends is a rightful claim to any revenue made from the sale of the gas. It also dismisses a Greek Cypriot-Israeli deal demarcating their maritime borders as null and void. In response, it recently signed an agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or KKTC, to explore for oil and natural gas in the region.

Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-speaking north in 1974, after Turkey militarily intervened to protect the lives of Turks on the island following a coup attempt by supporters of union with Greece.

Education Bill Passes as Brawl Rocks Panel

Amid an unprecedented melee that saw lawmakers punch and kick each other, hurl swear words and harass journalists, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, on Sunday rushed the controversial education bill through Parliament's Education Commission.

Commission Chairman Nabi Avcı took his opportunity in the midst of the chaos and hastily read out the remaining 20 articles of the draft, which were quickly approved by AKP votes without any discussion.

The whole procedure was completed in about 30 minutes, compared to the six-day sessions in which the first six articles were approved.

"Down with the AKP dictatorship," infuriated lawmakers of the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, chanted in the corridors of Parliament, as AKP deputies congratulated and applauded each other.

The scene for the brawl was set earlier, when about 100 AKP lawmakers packed the meeting room an hour ahead of the session, leaving several seats only for the Commission's opposition members. The pre-determined strategy, which followed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's adamant defense of the bill, aimed to block CHP tactics of protracting the debate through crowded attendance and lengthy speeches.

When some 50 CHP lawmakers arrived for the meeting, they found themselves stuck at the door. Their objections led to harsh exchanges that soon degenerated into fistfights and kicks. Two CHP lawmakers collapsed to the floor as plastic bottles flew in the air. One cameraman was taken to hospital with a head injury.

The Commission chairman, however, did not stop the vote and had the whole draft approved amid the pandemonium. Avcı defended his conduct later and put the blame on the opposition.

"The CHP said it would force the withdrawal of the bill. The Commission did not bow down to their threats," he said. CHP lawmakers took the floor about 130 times during the debate, which took almost 92 hours in total, he said.

Avcı displayed a bulky metal tape dispenser, which, he said, was hurled at him by the CHP's Akif Hamzaçebi. As the brawl raged, the AKP deputies also approved four changes to the draft, including one that would allow secondary school students to choose elective courses according to their talent and interests.

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who was meeting with pedagogues and journalists about the bill in Istanbul, condemned the session as "a black stain in the history of democracy" and declared the bill's approval "illegitimate."

The CHP's Muharrem İnce said: "Parliamentary democracy is finished. Bandits have descended on Parliament in broad daylight. See you at the second round at the General Assembly."

The CHP immediately convened an extraordinary meeting in Parliament, which was still under way when the Hürriyet Daily News went to print.

Mehmet Şandır of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, said the approval of the draft was "null and void," and called Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek to action. Çiçek, however, simply said that his efforts over the past two days for a compromise had failed to bear fruit and voiced his regret over the incident.

Critics say the bill was designed to re-open the secondary school stage of imam-hatip religious schools. The draft is also under fire for its early introduction of vocational classes, and a provision that would open the door to students to opt out of school in favor of home study after eight years. Such arrangements would encourage child labor and undermine the schooling of girls, critics say.

Opposition Protests Against Radar Base

A group of main opposition party lawmakers, accompanied by locals, have staged a protest in eastern Turkey against a planned NATO early warning radar system.

Ten deputies from the Republican People's Party, or CHP, wearing jackets reading "No to the Missile Shield," climbed the mountain where the radar system is stationed in Kürecik in the eastern province of Malatya on Saturday, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

The lawmakers went past four barricades by soldiers before being stopped at the entrance to the radar base. The group became the first civilians to approach the base, thereby allowing reporters to take photographs of the base for the first time. The deputies were flanked by locals opposing the installation of the NATO radar system.

"The radar base is against peace," Emine Ülker Tarhan, deputy parliamentary group leader for the CHP, told reporters in front of the radar base. "We are against war. To us, a shield is a symbol of war."

Radar in Turkey, Missiles in Romania, Poland

A deal with Turkey last year to station the sophisticated radar system on its territory was hailed by U.S. officials. Washington says the missile defense shield is designed to counter an Iranian missile threat.

Besides the radar in Turkey, the defense shield also contains interceptor missiles stationed in Romania and Poland, four ballistic missile defense-capable ships in Rota, Spain, and an operational headquarters in Germany.

The X-band radar in Turkey is part of a system designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles at extremely high altitudes. Kürecik is about 700 kilometers west of the Iranian border.

'New Charter Should Have No Barriers to Mother Tongue Education'

The 26th meeting of the Abant Platform, which discussed problematic areas of the constitutional drafting process, suggested in its final declaration regarding education being given in languages other than Turkish -- one of the most contentious issues that needs to be addressed in the new constitution -- that as long as the official language of the country is taught and learned, everyone should be given the opportunity to receive an education in their mother tongue.

"Education in one's mother tongue is a fundamental human right. The constitution should not impose any restrictions on receiving an education in one's mother tongue and it should make education in different languages possible. Furthermore, as long as the official language of the country is taught and learned, everyone has the right to use their mother tongue in education," said the final declaration of the Abant meeting regarding the controversial issue of education in languages other than Turkish.

The Platform's latest meeting took place in the northwestern province of Bolu between March 9 and 11 and included the participation of a wide spectrum of intellectuals, lawyers, political leaders and journalists.

During the meeting, participants examined the constitutional process through the following subjects -- citizenship and identity, mother tongue education, local governments and the balance between a unitary state and autonomy, freedom of religion, religious education and the position of the president in the constitution.

Following three days of deliberation, participants at the meeting released a final statement on Sunday which included suggestions for the settlement of one of the most disputed issues in the new constitution.

For years, Turkey has aspired to change its current 1982 Constitution, which was written following the 1980 military coup and criticized by many for lacking a pro-democratic and pro-freedom approach.All parties in Parliament pledged ahead of last year's general elections to contribute to the preparation of a new and democratic constitution for Turkey. A Constitution Commission was established by Parliament following the elections to work on the drafting of the new constitution.

Regarding the preamble of the constitution, the Platform said it should rely on principles of human rights, supremacy of law, democracy and respect to human dignity and not include any other articles like the non-amendable articles of the current constitution.

On citizenship and identities, the Platform overwhelmingly adopted two suggestions: "There is no need to define citizenship in the constitution. Furthermore, everyone who is born in neighborhoods dominated by the Turkish Republic are citizens of Turkey. In neighborhoods where the Turkish Republic does not dominate, the citizenship of one whose mother or father is a Turkish citizen is arranged according to law."

Participants of the Platform also discussed three proposals on the administrative structure of Turkey and adopted them: "The administrative structure of Turkey is based on decentralization. All administrative tutelage on local administrations should be removed. As long as the official language is obligatory, use of other languages in communication with the public is free. Second, the determination and organizations of public services are made locally. Third, administration from the center is an exception while decentralization is the main principle in administration."

The position of the president was among the issues discussed at the three-day meeting in Abant. According to the suggestions in the Platform's final declaration, the new constitution should retain Turkey's parliamentary system and the authority of the president should be narrowed down to make the position of the president like the one in democratic parliamentary systems where he/she has a symbolic position.

Although the president is elected for a five-year renewable term by a popular vote according to the current constitution, the Platform suggested that the president should be elected for a non-renewable seven-year term either by a popular vote or a qualified majority in Parliament.

On the contentious issue of freedom of faith and the position of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (DİB), the Platform made three suggestions: "Nobody can be subjected to discrimination in education, work life or the public domain due to their religious beliefs or statements. The DİB should be given the position of a foundation with full independence, other faith groups should establish similar foundations with state support or the DİB should be funded with the optional faith tax. Similar institutions should be established for other faith groups."

Yet another controversial issue discussed at the Platform was the issue of religious courses. The Platform suggested that the constitution should either include no provisions regarding religious lessons or it should include provisions for compulsory objective and pluralistic religious culture and moral education lessons. Either religious courses should be elective or there should be alternative courses to religious culture and moral education courses which promote critical thinking and develop pluralism with a different content.

Hashemi: My Being Sunni Not Reason for Turkish Support

Iraq's fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi has said he has Turkey's support not because he is a Sunni politician, but because Turkey is protesting injustice in Iraq's worst political crisis since the United States invasion nine years ago.

Iraq's Shiite-led central government wants to try Hashemi -- one of the country's top Sunni politicians -- on charges of running death squads in a case that raised fears of an increase in sectarian tension after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December.

In an interview with Turkey's television station CNN Türk, Hashemi said he knows Turks are sympathetic and understand his situation, which he described as "dire." He said that despite some of the limitations in Turkey's capacity to help, he is delighted and pleased to have Turkish support. He noted that he hopes Turks will continue to support him in his political situation.

The Iraqi central government issued an arrest warrant for Hashemi on the eve of the U.S. withdrawal, prompting a political crisis with Hashemi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc announcing a boycott of Parliament and the Shiite-led cabinet, and raised fears of a renewal of the sectarian violence that killed tens of thousands of people between 2006 and 2007.

The crisis has abated somewhat in recent weeks, as most members of the Iraqiya bloc have decided to lift the boycott, but Hashemi has remained holed up in the autonomous Kurdish zone in the north of the country.

He said he cannot receive a fair trial in Baghdad and has asked to be tried in Kirkuk, a city divided between Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The government says the case is purely criminal, the prosecution is independent and the government cannot intervene. A Baghdad judiciary panel rejected moving the case to Kirkuk and set a trial for May in Baghdad. Iraq's Interior Ministry said last week that it has demanded Kurdish authorities arrest him.

The crisis was followed by a wave of attacks in December, January and February on Shiite neighborhoods, including a suicide bombing on a Shiite funeral procession that killed 31 in Baghdad, an attack on Shiite pilgrims that left 53 dead in Basra and a string of attacks across Iraq that killed at least 55.

Days after the American military left, a wave of bombs targeting Shiites on Dec. 22 killed at least 69 people. That happened twice more over the following three weeks, killing 78 and 53, respectively.

Iraq's vice president said he hopes Iraq will completely restore its stability and establish cooperation among Iraq's different political factions.

"Support for Hashemi is not because Hashemi is a Sunni," the vice president said, noting that Turkish leaders understand the situation he is in and he can easily talk to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu whenever he wants.

Hashemi said it is his legitimate right to be tried in Kirkuk and he will not leave the Kurdish region for Baghdad. He indicated that he is not currently planning to travel abroad, even to Turkey, and acknowledged one of the first foreign officials he spoke with following the crisis last December was Davutoğlu, who urged him to stay in Iraq.

Hashemi said the Kurds embraced him because they do not tolerate injustice and that they fear that they could be the next target of the central government in Baghdad if they do not act to resolve the injustice.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is planning to organize a political conference soon, and Hashemi said, there are important matters that need to be resolved before the conference, aimed at reconciling Iraq's rival groups, is held.

Hashemi said it is still not clear whether or not they will send delegates to Baghdad in the case the venue of the national conference is in Baghdad. He said the authorities have jailed his guards, while others have fled government prosecution. Hashemi added that if the government will provide the necessary security for himself and his delegates, his participation in the national conference may be possible.

Speaking with regards to Turkish-Iraqi relations in the face of the latest quarrels between Erdoğan and Maliki, Hashemi said the current situation is not something he wants to see. He said Erdoğan's anger towards Maliki stems from the Turkish prime minister's awareness of Hashemi's situation. He indicated he had told Erdoğan about how Maliki had jailed Hashemi's guards and deployed tanks in front of his house.

Erdoğan and Maliki have exchanged harsh words over the past few months with regards to the political crisis that has escalated violence in Turkey's southern neighbor, which is also one of its largest partners in trade. Erdoğan accused Maliki of augmenting his power in Baghdad at the expense of isolating Sunni politicians and igniting civil strife that could plunge the war-torn country into a new cycle of violence.

Maliki harshly slammed Erdoğan for remarks he said represent interference in Iraq's domestic affairs. Maliki claims that Erdoğan is supporting Sunnis in Iraq and that Turkey's position could have "tragic consequences" for Iraq.

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