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Syria tightens security ahead of presidential vote

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FILE – This Monday, May 12, 2014 file photo, Syrian people drive by campaign posters of presidential candidates in Damascus, Syria. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Bashar Assad will secure a third seven-year term. The Arabic, right, reads, “For us to live with dignity, neither in refugee camps nor in shelters, Maher Hajjar.” The one at left reads, “There’s a benefit in trying others, Hassan al-Nouri, June 3, 2014.”(AP Photo, File)

FILE – This Monday, May 12, 2014 file photo, Syrian people drive by campaign posters of presidential candidates in Damascus, Syria. Despite the presence of challengers on this year’s ballots, there’s little doubt that Bashar Assad will secure a third seven-year term. The Arabic, right, reads, “For us to live with dignity, neither in refugee camps nor in shelters, Maher Hajjar.” The one at left reads, “There’s a benefit in trying others, Hassan al-Nouri, June 3, 2014.”(AP Photo, File)

FILE – In this May 12, 2014 file photo, a vehicle drives past campaign posters of the June 3 presidential election in Damascus, Syria. Workers tore down towering campaign posters Monday and soldiers searched cars entering Damascus on the eve of Syria’s presidential elections, which incumbent Bashar Assad is widely expected to win despite the nation’s devastating civil war that began as a peaceful revolt against his rule. The Arabic on the poster, right, reads, “Damascus spreads flowers for the loyal Bashar.” The banner, left, reads, “Together with Bashar Assad.” (AP Photo, File)

FILE – In this May 24, 2014 file photo, people walk by a campaign poster of the presidential elections for the incumbent President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria. Workers tore down towering campaign posters Monday and soldiers searched cars entering Damascus on the eve of Syria’s presidential elections, which incumbent Bashar Assad is widely expected to win despite the nation’s devastating civil war that began as a peaceful revolt against his rule. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels preparing to fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. A Syrian official and activists say dozens of people have been killed or wounded over the past three days in stepped-up rebel attacks on government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The attacks are the latest ahead of the country’s presidential election on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, a highly contentious vote amid a civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

FILE – In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 file photo, provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels preparing to fire locally made shells made from gas cylinders against the Syrian forces, in Idlib province, northern Syria. A Syrian official and activists say dozens of people have been killed or wounded over the past three days in stepped-up rebel attacks on government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The attacks are the latest ahead of the country’s presidential election on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, a highly contentious vote amid a civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — With security heightened in Damascus and thousands fearing rebel attacks in other cities, Syria holds an election Tuesday in the middle of its bloody civil war — a vote that President Bashar Assad is expected to win easily and that critics have denounced as a sham.

Assad’s re-election to another seven-year term would show the tenacity of a ruler who had only a tenuous grip on power just over a year ago. In the past 12 months, his troops have clawed back to regain lost ground and significantly strengthen his position, giving him little reason to seek a political compromise in a conflict that has killed more than 160,000 people.

Still, the Syrian government has gone to great lengths to present the vote as a way to resolve the crisis and move forward. For the first time in more than 50 years, more than one candidate will be on the ballot. Assad faces two government-approved challengers in the race, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both of whom were little known in Syria before declaring their candidacy in April.

The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have dismissed the vote as a farce, questioning the credibility of an election taking place during a raging civil war. Much of northern and eastern Syria is in rebel hands, and polling will only be done in government-controlled areas.

Ahmad al-Jarba, the leader of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, described the vote as “theater written with the blood of Syrians.” He urged his countrymen to stay home, alleging that Assad was planning to bomb and shell voting centers in order to blame the opposition.

Campaigning officially ended Monday, and workers across central Damascus took down banners, posters and pictures of the candidates. Blue and yellow tents were set up to shade the crowds expected at polling stations from the sun.

Hajjar and al-Nouri gave several interviews and turned up at election events during the race, but Assad has not made any public appearances in recent weeks. Still, the president remained a ubiquitous presence.

A gigantic banner with a smiling Assad stretched from the upper stories of a Damascus university building proclaiming, “The students are with you.” Another banner, spangled with tiny Syrian flags, hung from a government ministry and proclaimed its support for the president.

Motorists taped images of Assad on their windows, and posters of him in sunglasses and a military uniform, his sleeves rolled up, were stuck

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