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Damascus in grip of tense stalemate

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 7:12 p.m.

Iran and Syria condemned a U.S. plan to assist rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad on Saturday and signaled the Syrian leader intends to stay in power at least until 2014 presidential elections.

The remarks occurred as rebel forces have dug in to the north, east and south of Syria's capital, occupying stretches of suburban and rural terrain and threatening to break through to the heart of Damascus.

Government troops have largely pulled back to a well-defended core, including the city center and loyal bastions to the west.

After nearly two years of fighting in Syria that has mostly spared the capital, an uneasy stalemate reigns in Damascus. In recent days, the city has experienced mortar attacks and car bombings, while the military has responded in its usual fashion: withering bombardment of outlying rebel strongholds.

A huge explosion rocked the city last week, apparently a car bomb targeting a checkpoint in heavily defended Abaseen Square, a potential route into the city for rebels.

“I don't go anywhere unless I have specific business,” said a woman in her early 50s who requested anonymity for safety's sake. “No one does.”

The opposition presses foreign allies for support that could help break the impasse. On Thursday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry pledged $60 million in additional nonlethal aid during meetings with opposition figures in Rome, though he turned aside their plea for weapons.

Much of Assad's military is focused on defending a strategic zone that that includes the presidential palace, government buildings and military bases, drawing up a kind of cordon sanitaire around the capital. Damascus is crucial to both sides in the conflict, but it is only one of many battlegrounds.

Analysts say the government is determined to maintain a corridor from the capital along the highway north to Homs and to the Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast, long mentioned as a haven for Assad and his allies should the government collapse.

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