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Syria's first independent newspaper in decades, a satirical weekly that tackles political and social issues through cartoons, has proved so popular that it has spawned a black market in copies.

Publisher and cartoonist Ali Farzat says the first print run of 75,000 sold out on the first day, and after a month of publication Al-Doumari (The Lamplighter) is reaching hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking an alternative to the state press.

"We're more famous than Monica [Lewinsky] Everyone in Syria is talking about our newspaper," Mr. Farzat said. "The problem is technical capacity. But our readership is not 100,000 or 200,000, it's more than a million people. If you want to buy the newspaper, you have to reserve it the week before.

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"There's even a black market -- our price is 25 pounds (85 cents) but sometimes they're selling it for 150 pounds," he said. The paper far outsells the official dailies, whose circulation is no more than 20,000.

Mr. Farzat has close links with Syria's new President, Bashar Assad, who has set reforms in motion since the death of his father, Hafez Assad, last June.

Al-Doumari is one of the most visible symbols of the new leader's desire for reform, but not everything is rosy. One of his initiatives -- national discussion groups on political and social issues -- was ended after participants called for the lifting of martial law and new political parties to end the monopoly of the Baath Party. One of the forums' most outspoken participants, parliamentarian Riad Seif, faces charges as a result.

Information Minister Adnan Omran said he is a fierce defender of free speech, but with limits. "Every day I receive calls from ministers saying 'They're writing bitterly about what we're doing.' My answer is always the same. . . . I can guarantee your right to respond.

"The only red line is anything related to the cohesion of society. Even in Britain you are not allowed to use journalism to increase differences, whether religious or national ones," said Mr. Omran, a former ambassador to London.

Al-Doumari is the first satirical paper to appear in Syria since the leftist branch of the Baath party seized control in 1963.

Saber Falhout, head of the journalists union and a member of parliament, said a new law has been drawn up to allow more independent publications. "We're expecting many new newspapers to be published soon," he said.

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Mr. Farzat, who has won several international awards for his cartoons, said his paper aims to promote free speech, a forgotten concept for many Syrians: "We are trying to teach the people not to be afraid . . . and to talk about anything they want to talk about. And we're trying to teach the people in power to know that when they are really at fault, they have to admit they are at fault."

Mr. Farzat was known for his daring cartoons even under the regime of the older Mr. Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist.

One of his cartoons shows a torture victim hanging from a wall. The torturer sits beside him, taking a break from his work to watch television. He is moved to tears by a love story on the screen.

Mr. Farzat said his reputation makes it easy for him to speak out, even while some government conservatives balk at the pace of liberalization under the younger Mr. Assad. The President supports his paper and is a bit of a comic himself, Mr. Farzat said. "He's more of a caricaturist than me. He draws with his words, by talking."

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