The U.S. and its allies dismissed the Syrian regime's referendum on a new constitution Sunday as a "farce" meant to justify the bloody crackdown on dissent.
But voters in government strongholds suggested why some Syrians have not joined the uprising against President Bashar Assad: loyalty, distrust of the opposition and fear his fall will ignite a civil war.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the poll "a cynical ploy" and urged Syrians who still support Assad to turn against him. A "farce" and a "sham vote" was how German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described it.
"It's a phony referendum, and it is going to be used by Assad to justify what he's doing to other Syrian citizens," Clinton said in an interview with CBS News in Rabat, Morocco.
While casting his vote at the state broadcasting headquarters, Assad showed no signs of giving in to international demands to end his crackdown. And as he has done in the past, he tried to deflect blame in other directions. He said Syria was under a "media attack."
"They may be stronger on the airwaves, but we are stronger on the ground, and we aspire to win both on the ground and on the airwaves," he said in footage broadcast on state TV.
The new constitution allows -- at least in theory -- for the formation of competing political parties and limits the president to two seven-year terms. Such change was unthinkable a year ago. Syria has been ruled by the Baath party since it seized power in a coup in 1963, and the Assad family has ruled since Bashar's father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970.
Even as the regime hailed the referendum as a giant step toward reform, its military kept up a crackdown that has been focused for the past three weeks on the opposition stronghold city of Homs. The city, parts of which are controlled by rebels, has come under intense shelling, and hundreds have died, including two Western journalists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 36 civilians and 23 security personnel were killed Sunday, mostly in Homs. Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 55 people were killed nationwide, including 23 in Homs province.
The opposition called the referendum an empty gesture and boycotted voting, saying it will not ease the country's crisis. Supporters of the uprising say nothing short of Assad's ouster will end the bloodshed.
Activist groups estimate nearly 7,500 have died in 11 months of unrest.
"I'm here because I love my country," said housewife Fayzeh Fadel. She said she didn't want Syria to have a civil war like Libya or neighboring Iraq.
She and other voters spoke to foreign reporters who were accompanied by government minders.
"My biggest fear is civil war," said a woman at a pro-Assad demonstration downtown. "That's why we are standing by our president and Syrian institutions."