(NPR) - Troops opened fire on anti-government protesters in several countries on Friday as unrest spread across the Arab world. The White House urged leaders in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to cease attacks on protesters.
In Syria, soldiers fired on demonstrators in several cities, and rival protesters clashed in the streets of the capital in the most widespread unrest in years, witnesses said. Troops shot at demonstrators in Daraa after crowds set fire to a bronze statue of the country's late president, Hafez Assad.
"We will not forget the martyrs of Daraa," a resident told The Associated Press by telephone. "If they think this will silence us, they are wrong."
Yemen's longtime ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, told supporters on Friday that he was ready to step down, but would only turn the country over to "good capable hands." Saleh hopes to avoid more bloodshed in the country, where pro- and anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets for weeks.
"There's certainly a fear among U.S. officials and Europeans that if Yemen gets even more unstable it could form a haven for al Qaida," Washington Post reporter Sudarsan Raghavan told NPR's Robert Siegel and Melissa Block. "The U.S. has put tens of millions of dollars into counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. If Saleh were to step down, who is going to replace him and would that person be a key ally as Saleh is?"
Several other Arab countries were rocked by demonstrations on Friday:
Jordan: The key U.S. ally saw protesters clash with government supporters, pelting each other with stones until security forces stormed the area. One person was killed and another 100 people were wounded. Protesters have been pressing King Abdullah II to hand over more power to the parliament.
Bahrain: Security forces fired tear gas into the anti-government masses who who gathered despite a ban imposed last week on marches and public demonstrations. Activists say an elderly man died after inhaling the gas. The conflict began after a prominent Shiite cleric vowed that their demands for the Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip on power would not be silenced by "brutal force."
Saudi Arabia: Several hundred Shiite Muslims rallied in the eastern part of the country, demanding the release of prisoners and the withdrawal of Saudi troops from Bahrain. For years, Shiites there have complained of discrimination and say they are barred from key positions in the military and government as well as denied an equal share of the country's wealth.
In Washington on Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney appealed to leaders in the Middle East to engage in political dialogue and refrain from violence.
"The stability and future of this region depends upon the decision by governments to listen to their people, to act on their legitimate aspirations and to open up their systems so that the people of these countries can have a greater stake in the future of their country and their own futures," he said.