Defense minister says Syrian pullout to begin today

By ZEINA KARAM

The Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanese officials said Syrian troops will start moving toward eastern Lebanon on Monday in a pullback that will take two or three days, while Syrians – not unexpectedly – backed President Bashar Assad's decision and insisted Sunday he was not bowing to international pressure.

The withdrawal from central and northern Lebanon toward the Bekaa Valley will begin right after a meeting in Damascus, Syria, of the presidents of the two countries, Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad told The Associated Press. Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud will decide on the timetable of the pullback and repositioning of forces.

“The Syrian withdrawal will begin Monday directly after the meeting in Damascus of the Syrian and Lebanese leaderships,” Murad said.

Also Sunday, the leader of the Hezbollah militant group called for a demonstration in Beirut to counter the weeks of anti-Syrian protests here. Underlining tensions between the two camps, a pro-Syrian supporter fired on an anti-Syrian activist and wounded him, police said. The two clashed near Martyrs Square in central Beirut.

Assad told his parliament Saturday that the redeployment of 14,000 Syrian troops to the Bekaa Valley is the first phase of a two-step pullback, but he left unclear whether troops eventually would leave Lebanon or remain near the border. He also said nothing about pulling out intelligence officials, who the United States said also must leave.

Syrian secret services and intelligence officials “that really keep the clamp of fear in the Lebanese people” must withdraw, White House counselor Dan Bartlett told CNN's “Late Edition.”

President Bush said Friday that anything less than a full Syrian withdrawal by May – when Lebanese parliamentary elections are to be held – would be an unacceptable “half-measure.” U.S. officials reiterated that demand Sunday.

“We'll continue to make clear that they understand that the international community is not going to stand by and let Assad continue to have these type of half-measures, but to live up to his international demands,” Bartlett told “Fox News Sunday.”

The 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord called for Syria to move its troops to the Lebanese border and for both countries to then negotiate the withdrawal.

A U.N. resolution, drafted by the United States and France in September, called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled. France and Russia also have demanded a full withdrawal.

Syria has had troops in Lebanon since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during that country's 1975-1990 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained while Syria dominated Lebanon's politics.

Lebanese opposition leaders, who have led the campaign to push Syria out, were skeptical of a complete withdrawal and warned against possible attempts to stir up trouble to scuttle the pullout.

“President Assad's speech was a political announcement. What the Lebanese are waiting for is implementation of this announcement,” said Fares Soeid, an opposition legislator.

But Syrians praised their president's announcement and insisted the decision to pull back did not result from international pressure but rather continued a gradual process.

On the streets of Damascus, Syrians almost to a person said the Lebanese who have been demonstrating by the thousands for Syrian withdrawal are ungrateful for its help in stabilizing the country after its civil war.

“The Lebanese shouldn't have done this to Syrians,” said Mohammed Jabali, 18.

Issam al-Jazaeri, 50, said in his carpet shop that Assad “made it clear that the army has been withdrawing for some time.” Assad said in his speech that Syria has reduced its deployment in Lebanon by more than 60 percent since 2000.

Besides weeks of protests demanding a Syrian ouster, there have been reports of attacks on Syrian workers in Lebanon as well as some racist comments against Syrians.

“We have relatives, friends and interests in Lebanon” and Lebanese make it difficult to go there, hotel worker Imad Mansour said.

The weekly business newspaper Al-Iqtissadiya said thousands of angry Syrians have withdrawn their deposits from Lebanese banks in the past two weeks. Syrians are believed to have $10 billion in Lebanese banks – making up nearly 20 percent of the deposits.

“I had some savings in Lebanon but withdrew them. I don't want to take any risks even though Lebanese banks pay higher interest,” Mansour said.

Associated Press reporters Hussein Dakroub in Beirut and Bassem Mroue in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.