- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

BEIRUT — Opposition groups took opposing stands yesterday on whether to press for the ouster of President Emile Lahoud as the next step in their drive to rid Lebanon of Syrian influence.

Planning sessions took place in back rooms and on the streets among parties and coalitions still flush with excitement after forcing the Syrian-backed prime minister and Cabinet to resign this week.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the most prominent politician to ally himself with what organizers have dubbed the “Cedar Revolution,” called yesterday for Mr. Lahoud — a Christian whose term was extended last year under Syrian pressure — to quickly follow Prime Minister Omar Karami out the door.

“I prefer that [Mr. Lahoud] leaves and that we get rid of this bad regime and start a new page in Lebanese-Syrian and internal Lebanese relations,” he said.

But leaders of the mainly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) argued at a strategy session that it would be better to wait until after parliamentary elections in the spring in hopes of increasing their leverage.

“Because the current parliament remains loyal to Syria, a resignation by Lahoud could see us forced to accept new leaders that constitutionally could stay in power until the next round of elections,” said one FPM leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“That could bring six years of dealing with these Syrian-controlled guys.”

Mr. Karami and his Cabinet resigned abruptly on Monday in the face of protests by tens of thousands of people, many of whom were waving red-and-white Lebanese flags yesterday near the grave of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr. Lahoud, who now must invite another party leader to try to form a government, met with the speaker of parliament yesterday, but the protesters like Mr. Lahoud even less than Mr. Karami and have no faith in his choice.

The best they are hoping for is a government of unaligned “technocrats” who would serve as neutral caretakers until the spring elections.

Opposition leaders also scoffed at a remark by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was quoted Tuesday saying he was willing to withdraw his country’s 14,000 troops from Lebanon in a “few months.”

The Associated Press said Mr. Assad was expected to travel to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, today to discuss a joint Egyptian-Saudi proposal for Damascus to set a timetable for withdrawing the troops.

“Syria … has lost her credibility in the international community,” said Michel Aoun, a former head of the Lebanese army currently under indictment for anti-Syrian activities and living in France.

He was speaking to a gathering of supporters via videophone at the American University Beirut, a hotbed of opposition support.

“The United States, Europe and all countries have seen Syria for its lies,” Mr. Aoun said to cheers from the crowd of about 500 supporters. “All the Syrians are is all talk. The international community knows that Syria will talk but never act.”

Even if Damascus withdraws its soldiers, who have been in Lebanon since a 1975-90 civil war, opposition leaders say the more difficult task will be to remove Syria’s intelligence services from their entrenched positions of influence.

“Lebanon has a history of being the most liberal Arab country, and we can do a lot of things in public that would never be accepted in Saudi or even Jordan,” one newspaper editor said.

“But there is a bright line we have never been able to cross. If you anger the Syrians or [the anti-Israeli militia] Hezbollah, you can disappear or be branded a ‘Jew spy.’”

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