- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2005

MASNAA, Lebanon — Syria ended its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon yesterday, pulling its last 250 soldiers across the border after an upbeat ceremony that glossed over the tensions between the two neighbors.

The rear guard of a Syrian contingent that had numbered 14,000 soldiers just two months ago chanted and waved V-for-victory signs as it rode buses and jeeps across the border in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

“We sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Bashar,” went the chant in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose likeness was posted all over the vehicles.

Shortly afterward, officials in Damascus formally notified the United Nations that they had complied with a resolution calling for Syrian withdrawal of all troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.

“The Syrian Arab forces stationed in Lebanon, at the request of Lebanon and under an Arab mandate, have fully withdrawn all their military, security apparatus and assets,” Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa said in a letter to the world body.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the Syrian pullout “a historic day for Lebanon and its people,” but cautioned that the United States was still waiting for final verification that all Syrian military and intelligence assets had been withdrawn from the country.

He said it was premature to speculate on whether the move would improve rocky U.S.-Syrian relations and said no decision had been made on the return to Damascus of U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey, who was recalled to Washington for consultations in mid-February to express U.S. unhappiness with Syria.

Syria first sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 to quell a civil war and the troops remained after the war ended in 1990.

It retained firm military and political control until February, when a bombing killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The killing sparked a series of popular protests against Syria.

Even before Mr. Hariri’s death, Syria was ordered in a U.N. resolution to withdraw from Lebanon.

In the face of the protests and widespread anger at the Syrian-controlled government, as well as international pressure, Mr. Assad agreed to withdraw troops by the end of April.

The protests also triggered the collapse of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government, and after a six-week political standoff that left the country virtually leaderless, an interim government was formed last week.

Parliamentary elections are slated for late May, and the anti-Syrian opposition movement is expected to win significant numbers of seats.

“Go home, Syria, may peace be with you,” cried one sarcastic Lebanese, waiting at the border crossing just outside the town of Anjar, where the Syrian military intelligence headquarters for Lebanon stood for nearly three decades.

Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazali, head of Syrian military intelligence, crossed the border with 10 carloads of intelligence officials.

Gen. Ghazali was considered the man who controlled Lebanon, despite the presence of an elected government.

About 250 Syrian soldiers in red berets followed him a few minutes after he entered Syria.

“Good, we are finished with this occupation by the Syrian parasites,” said Anthony Laytif, a student activist. “This is a great day for the nation of Lebanon.”

In a ceremony designed to reflect close relations and not the acrimony that preceded the departure, Syrian and Lebanese military units performed a ceremony in the nearby base of Riyyak honoring their friendship.

Gen. Ali Habib, Syria’s chief of staff, said in a speech during the departure ceremony that Syria withdrew the troops because the Lebanese army had been “rebuilt on sound national foundations and became capable of protecting the state.”

He said that his country had no “ambitions in Lebanon, except to protect it.”

One Lebanese officer said, “So long, our brothers in arms, the Syrian Arab army.”

• David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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