Thu, 10 Mar 2005

From: AFP

Lebanon seeks new PM as troops begin pullback

Nayla Razzouk, Agence France-Presse/Beirut

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud met MPs on Wednesday to find a new prime minister after a mass pro-Syrian rally underlined sharp internal divisions over the role of Damascus as it began a much- watched military pullback.

The political horsetrading got underway as Syrian troops moved towards eastern Lebanon under a two-stage redeployment announced at a summit on Monday between Lahoud and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the face of intense international pressure.

Ironically, the man being tipped to head the new Lebanese government is the pro-Syrian Omar Karameh, who resigned as prime minister only last week amid massive opposition demonstrations.

Syria's ambassador to the United States said the troops would be out of Lebanon by May, when legislative elections are due to be held.

"They are actually being withdrawn today," Imad Moustapha told CNN television on Tuesday. "We will do this as soon as possible, even long time before May."

The comment followed a fresh call by U.S. President George W. Bush for Syria's military and intelligence forces to be out of Lebanon before the elections and a warning to Assad against resorting to "delaying tactics and half measures."

Many Lebanese MPs are calling for the return to office of Karameh, who resigned in the face of what the United States dubbed a "Cedar Revolution" triggered by the killing of his popular predecessor Rafiq Hariri on Feb. 14.

After a meeting with Lahoud, powerful pro-Syrian house speaker Nabih Berri said his 15-member bloc had picked Karameh to head "a new government of national union" to resolve the crisis engulfing the country since Hariri's death.

Lahoud's consultations are mandatory and he must name as premier the candidate with the most support among MPs.

Opposition MPs are not planning to name a candidate for the premiership but are making a number of demands in return for their support.

"We are demanding the truth about (Hariri's) assassination, the resignation or sacking of the public prosecutor and security chiefs, and the implementation of the Taef Accord for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence forces from Lebanon according to a timetable," said MP Ghinwa Jalloul who is representing opposition MPs at the consultations.

Syria's Assad pledged on Monday to pull back his country's remaining 14,000 troops and unknown number of intelligence forces in Lebanon towards the Bekaa, where most of the troops are already based, by the end of March.

But he stopped short of announcing a full withdrawal as demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 1559.