Mon, 07 Mar 2005

From: Reuters

Syria vows swift Lebanon pullout in 'historic' move

Nadim Ladki, Reuters/Beirut

Syria vowed a swift two-phased withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in what the Lebanese press described on Sunday as a historic move opening a new chapter after 30 years of Syrian domination.

Under intense global pressure, Syrian President Bashar al- Assad announced plans on Saturday for a complete pullout but said Damascus would still play a role in its tiny neighbor.

Lebanese greeted Assad's announcement with screams of delight in central Beirut, while opposition figures in Lebanon and European leaders cautiously described the move as positive.

But Washington, which says Syrian "support for terrorism" impedes Middle East peace, dismissed the plan as inadequate and reiterated its call for a complete and immediate withdrawal.

"We wake up in Lebanon today to a new political reality, the opening of a new phase in the country's history," As-Safir newspaper said in a front-page editorial. Al-Mustaqbal daily labeled the announcement "a historic event".

Under mounting international pressure and faced with daily protests inside Lebanon to end its security presence, Assad told parliament Syrian troops would initially pull back to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and then to the border area.

"By this measure Syria would have fulfilled its commitment towards the Taif Accord and implemented (UN Security Council) Resolution 1559," he said.

The Taif Accord ended Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and, among other points, stipulated the withdrawal of Syrian troops from most of the country within two years. Resolution 1559, adopted last September by the UN Security Council at the initiative of the United States and France, called for foreign troops to quit Lebanon completely.

Syrian cabinet minister Buthaina Shaaban said troops would withdraw to the Syrian side of the border "as soon as possible logistically" and that a meeting between the two countries' leaders on Monday would agree on the details, including timing.

Syrian troops have been in Lebanon since intervening in its civil war in the 1970s, and it currently has about 14,000 troops there, down from 40,000.

"Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon does not mean the absence of Syria's role," Assad said. "Syria's strength and its role in Lebanon is not dependent on the presence of its forces in Lebanon."

Damascus has viewed Lebanon as a strategic asset and key economic outlet for decades.

But it has come under growing Lebanese, Arab and wider pressure to quit the country since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri last month. Many pointed the finger at Syria, which denies any role in the killing.

Lebanon's main opposition leader Walid Jumblatt said Assad's speech was a "positive start ... Our hands are extended with the insistence on a timetable for the withdrawal."

The United States, Syria's most vocal critic, said Assad's pledge to pull back had not gone far enough.

"We mean complete withdrawal -- no half-hearted measures," said White House spokeswoman Erin Healy.

Russia, Britain and the European Union called Assad's announcement a first step towards full withdrawal.

UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen is expected to go to Beirut and Damascus this week to discuss the "full, complete and immediate implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559".

Iran said it respected any joint Syrian-Lebanese decision, though it did not want Lebanese unity or sovereignty endangered.

"But the pressure on the Syrian government, with the withdrawal from Lebanon as an excuse, seems to be a pre-designed plan by the Zionist lobbies to safeguard Israel's survival and its expansionist policies," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said in Tehran.

Five days after the fall of their Syrian- backed government, Lebanese celebrated again in Beirut's Martyrs' Square.

"I am very happy and excited," Collette Hajj said. "I hope we will achieve true independence, as long as we stay here and keep demanding it."

Not everyone celebrated: hundreds took to the streets in several Lebanese towns to declare their support for Syria. Some fired assault rifles into the air.

Fifteen years after the end of civil war, Lebanon remains divided between Christians, Druze, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and some worry a Syrian pullout might renew internal conflict.