Syrian forces in Lebanon to move near border

U.S. among nations calling for withdrawal

March 06, 2005|By COX NEWS SERVICE

DAMASCUS, Syria - President Bashar Assad said yesterday that Syrian troops in Lebanon would pull back to near the two nations' border, falling short of the complete and immediate withdrawal demanded by the United States and other nations.

The U.S. State Department quickly criticized the announcement as "not enough," adding that "when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal - no halfhearted measures."

The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it expected Assad "to fully withdraw his troops and services from Lebanon as soon as possible."

A pullback of Syria's 15,000 troops had been widely expected after Lebanon's pro-Syrian government fell last week amid allegations that Damascus was involved in last month's killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

But late yesterday, Syria's intentions regarding a full withdrawal remained unclear.

In a rare speech to the country's obedient parliament, Assad promised only to reposition Syrian forces first to eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and later to its border with Syria. He provided no timetable for a total pullout, which he insisted must be "organized and gradual" to ensure Lebanon's stability.

He also made no mention of withdrawing Syrian intelligence operatives, a key demand of the United States and other nations.

But Assad also said, "The natural place for Syrian forces is on Syrian soil." And he claimed the new redeployment "will have fulfilled requirements" of a September resolution by the United Nations and of the 1989 Taifa agreement ending Lebanon's 15-year civil war, both of which specified full withdrawal.

Also, Syria's immigrant affairs minister, Buthaina Shaaban, told Lebanese Broadcast Corp. television later yesterday that the withdrawal would be complete, saying, "When an army withdraws, it withdraws to inside the country's border."

Outside the parliament hall where Assad spoke, thousands of pro-government demonstrators waving Syrian flags cheered his remarks, which were broadcast on giant screens. But their bewilderment about the recent chain of events was palpable.

Syrians put great store in what they argue is their stabilizing influence in Lebanon. Indeed, the United States welcomed both its 1976 intervention of about 40,000 troops to help crush the Palestine Liberation Organization and its presence immediately afterward.

But recently, Syria's role in Lebanon has become a key issue in President Bush's campaign for democratic reform in the Middle East.

In his weekly radio address yesterday, released before Assad spoke, Bush said that "Syria has been an occupying force in Lebanon for nearly three decades, and Syria's support for terrorism remains a key obstacle to peace in the broader Middle East."

In his speech, Assad again denied any involvement by Damascus in Hariri's death, which has led to enormous pressure from critics, including Bush and traditional Arab friends Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

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