Syrians voted in parliamentary elections Monday that the government praised as a milestone in promised political reforms, but the opposition boycotted the polls and said they were designed to strengthen President Bashar Assad's grip on power.
The fact the regime and the opposition are pushing such wildly divergent views is a sign of the chasm separating the two sides, more than a year into a conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people and raised fears of a regional conflagration.
World powers have been unable to stop the bloodshed, and the Assad regime has largely ignored demands by special envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw its military. A truce that was scheduled to begin April 12 has never really taken hold.
There were scattered reports of violence Monday, including witness accounts that security forces launched deadly attacks on villages in central Syria where opposition supporters were refusing to vote. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
The election for the 250-member parliament is unlikely to change the trajectory of the revolt in Syria, which has become a grim cycle of crackdown and reprisal. Parliament is considered a rubber stamp in a country where the president holds the real power.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that for the government to go ahead with balloting in the current atmosphere in Syria "borders on ludicrous."
"It is not really possible to hold credible elections in a climate where basic human rights are being denied to the citizens and the government is continuing to carry out daily assaults on its own citizens," he said.
Asked whether U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had any comment on the vote, his spokesman Martin Nesirky said: "Only a comprehensive and inclusive political dialogue can lead to a genuine democratic future in Syria. These elections are not taking place within that framework. Moreover, a democratic process cannot be successful while violence is still ongoing."
Still, the elections are the first under a new constitution, adopted three months ago, that allows political parties to compete with Assad's ruling Baath Party. The new constitution also limits the president to two seven-year terms.
Assad, 46, inherited power from his father in 2000.
In recent weeks, candidates' photographs and banners have adorned the capital, Damascus, in what regime supporters say is a sign of burgeoning reform in a country ruled by one family for more than four decades. But critics are deeply skeptical, saying the vote - and the candidates - largely have been orchestrated by the government.
"The face of the regime will not change," said activist Mousab Alhamadee, speaking on Skype from the central city of Hama. "The regime is like a very old woman, a woman in her 70s, trying to put on makeup."
Experts say that despite the legal changes, Syria's oppressive security services keep true regime opponents from participating in politics.
Omar Ossi, an Assad supporter who describes himself as an opposition candidate, told The Associated Press that he rejects any foreign interference in Syria's affairs and instead wants to resolve the country's crisis through dialogue.
"The new parliament will move Syria from one place to a new one that is more free and democratic, a Syria based on rule of the law and social justice," he said, adding that Assad's reforms were serious and would pave the way for a more democratic Syria.
Nora al-Khatib, a Culture Ministry employee, said she is happy to see opposition figures running in the elections.
"I hope they succeed," she said.
Assad has made a series of gestures toward reform to try to pacify the crisis, but his opponents say his efforts are too little, too late. Monday's vote had been postponed several times, most recently after the constitutional referendum in February allowed new political parties, such as Ossi's National Initiative for Syrian Kurds, to run.
Voters lined up and dropped white ballots in large, plastic boxes after polls opened at 7 a.m. Election officials say nearly 7,000 candidates are competing for seats in the legislature in a country of almost 15 million eligible voters out of a population of 24 million.
The opposition has called the elections a farce and says it will accept nothing short of the fall of Assad's regime.
"We cannot talk about free elections when the regime is shelling different cities," said Khaled Khoja of the opposition Syrian National Council.
As the voting got under way, regime forces stormed several poor farming villages in central Syria where residents were boycotting the elections, shooting randomly and torching homes, two witnesses said. One resident who asked to be identified only by his first name, Zakariya, for fear of retribution, said at least four people in his village of Qabr Fidda were killed - including a man and his two daughters, who were burned alive.
"They also shot at people who fled in to the farms but we don't know anything about what happened to them," Zakariya told the AP by telephone from the village, 30 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Hama.
Another resident of Qabr Fidda, Mohammed Abu Sair, said he fled to a nearby area with four of his neighbors who had been shot. He said the attack appeared to be because the village observed a general strike and no one went to vote.
"They threatened the government employees three days ago, telling them to bring their relatives to the polling centers," he said. The village had a large protest Sunday and no one went to vote on Monday, he said.
As he spoke, a car carrying the body of a man killed in shelling of a neighboring village, al-Twainey, arrived, he said.
Alhamadee, the activist in Hama, said streets were empty in the city and shops were closed as residents took part in the general strike. Activists reported similar strikes in towns and villages throughout Syria, and some hung posters of those killed in the uprising around their neighborhoods, saying their "martyrs" are the only suitable candidates.
The Syrian government portrays the uprising as a plot by terrorists with foreign backing to weaken the country.
Western powers have pinned their hopes on Annan's plan, in part because they are running out of options. The U.N. has ruled out any military intervention of the type that helped bring down Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and several rounds of sanctions and other attempts to isolate Assad have done little to stop the bloodshed.
Some voters echoed the regime's view that any foreign involvement was unwelcome.
"I have elected the newcomers because they have fresh ideas and are different from the old generation," said Damascus voter Mohammed Hassan, 25. He said those boycotting the vote were "agents of the West."
World leaders remain divided over the next steps in Syria. About 40 U.N. observers are in the country, and U.N. officials hope a wider deployment of up to 300 international truce monitors will gradually calm the situation.
Kennedy reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Ben Hubbard in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.