Sat, 12 Mar 2005

From: Reuters

Syrians quit north Lebanon, political crisis deepens

Nadim Ladki, Reuters/Beirut

Almost all Syrian troops left north Lebanon on Friday, ending an unbroken 29-year presence and underlining Syria's diminishing role in its small neighbor.

In Beirut, the opposition indicated it would spurn a call by reinstated pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami for a national unity government, deepening a political crisis ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

A security source said the Syrians had not yet vacated two intelligence offices and two military posts in and around the northern town of Tripoli, but could do so within 24 hours.

All other positions, including a large base at an airstrip, were evacuated overnight and thousands of soldiers and hundreds of vehicles crossed into Syria, witnesses said.

Syrian forces first entered Lebanon in 1976 early in the civil war. Their numbers have declined to 14,000 from a peak of 40,000, but they had never before abandoned the north.

Syrian troops also continued to return home or move eastwards from the Beirut area in line with a phased withdrawal plan agreed this week amid intense global pressure on Damascus to lift its military and political grip on Lebanon.

Lebanon's pro-Syrian cabinet fell last week after an outcry over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, but Karami was reappointed on Thursday in a move opposition leaders said would only prolong political uncertainty.

"We don't think that this appointment gives the Lebanese hope," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said in Moscow, describing it as "a disappointment and an extension to the crisis".

A group of Christian MPs said Karami's reinstatement "shows Syria's insistence on maintaining its tutelage policy that was rejected by the Lebanese".

A pro-Syrian political source warned of a power vacuum that could force the authorities to postpone the election.

"The initial reactions of the opposition indicate a refusal to join the government and thus we're heading to a government crisis... which would indirectly scrap the elections," said the source, who asked not to be identified.

A government must be formed soon to allow parliament to issue a law organizing the elections at least a month before they begin. Otherwise the polls would have to be postponed.

Opposition leaders have said they want a cabinet excluding election candidates. They are also demanding a full Syrian pullout, the sacking of pro-Syrian security chiefs and an international inquiry into last month's assassination of Hariri.

Karami will start consulting political and religious leaders, including some in the opposition, on Monday, political sources said. Pro-Syrian ministers dominated his last cabinet.

The United States, which has been demanding that Syria end its involvement in Lebanon, criticized Karami's reappointment.

UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, expected to press for a timetable for a complete Syrian withdrawal in line with a UN Security Council resolution, will travel to Damascus on Saturday for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He is due to meet Lebanese officials in Beirut on Sunday. Lebanon's defense minister has said the first phase of the withdrawal plan, which calls for a Syrian pullback to the eastern Bekaa Valley will be completed next week. Beirut and Damascus will then decide how long any Syrian troops remain.

The UN resolution demands a full Syrian withdrawal, the disarming of militias and free elections.

The Shiite Muslim Hizbollah movement is the only Lebanese militia openly to retain its guns since the 1975-90 civil war.

In a distinct shift of emphasis, U.S. officials now say the Bush administration would accept a political role for Hizbollah, which it classifies as a terrorist group, if it disarmed.

This week Hizbollah showed its political power by drawing hundreds of thousands of people to central Beirut for a pro-Syria rally, dwarfing anti-Syrian protests.

Russia said on Friday that Hizbollah should play a political role. "It is in the interests of Lebanon, and the whole Middle East, for Hizbollah's political role to be taken into account," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying.

He was speaking after meeting Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt in Moscow. The Druze chief has repeatedly urged dialog with Hizbollah and said it should join any new government formed in Lebanon after the Syrian withdrawal.