- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

Syria President Bashar Assad is expected to announce today a pullback of his troops in Lebanon to positions near the Syrian border — falling short of a demand by President Bush yesterday for a “complete withdrawal, no halfhearted measures.”

Lebanese officials said that Mr. Assad would outline plans in a speech to the Syrian parliament in response to a growing outrage in the West — and in the Arab world — over Syria’s 29-year occupation of its neighbor.

“When we say withdraw we mean complete withdrawal — no halfhearted measures,” Mr. Bush said in New Jersey yesterday. “Syrian troops, Syrian intelligence services must get out of Lebanon now.”

Abdel Halim Mrad, defense minister in the Syrian-backed Lebanese government, which resigned on Monday, said the move would adhere to the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

“Syria will redeploy its forces in line with Taif,” he said, according to Reuters news agency.

The agreement stipulates Syrian forces be redeployed to the eastern Bekaa Valley, and then that the Lebanese and Syrian governments agree on how long these forces stay.

The United States and other members of the U.N. Security Council also discussed yesterday efforts to help Lebanon’s transition from Syrian control to unfettered exercise of sovereign authority.

“We all need to look at how we can help the Lebanese government extend its control, its authority throughout the country,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

“That’s not just military,” he said. “That’s the political process, the election, the legitimacy of an elected Lebanese government, the political arrangements worked out between the various groups and parties.”

Mr. Boucher spoke as Terje Roed-Larsen, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special envoy for Lebanon, met in Washington with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in London that the issue has been discussed in the Security Council “in an informal way.”

“There are already some U.N. peacekeeping forces in the south of Lebanon. It is possible that as part of a phased withdrawal from the Lebanon by Syria,” he told the British Broadcasting Corp., “there could be some more peacekeeping troops.”

But Mr. Boucher spoke of “monitoring” and seemed to disagree with the British proposal.

“We’ll talk with the British about any ideas that they have, but at this point I think it’s too early for any of us to start focusing on particular elements of this,” he said.

Mr. Straw said the withdrawal has to be “swift, but obviously phased, so you don’t leave a mess,” while Mr. Boucher suggested that all forces should leave at once.

Syria has carried out five redeployments since 2000, pulling some forces to the Bekaa and some back to Syria, but has maintained forces in and around Beirut and in northern Lebanon.

Pressure on Damascus has intensified since former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated last month in a bombing many Lebanese blame on Syria. Syria denies involvement.

Mr. Boucher said there “may be developments that require further [U.N. Security Council] resolutions,” in addition to September’s Resolution 1559 calling for Syria’s immediate withdrawal from Lebanon.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, rejected concerns of insecurity and instability if all 14,000 Syrian troops depart at the same time.

He pointed to the weakness of the current security situation in Lebanon, citing as an example Mr. Hariri’s assassination.

“Lebanon will have plenty of support” from the international community after the Syrians leave, the official said.

Miss Rice also discussed Lebanon with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier by phone yesterday, Mr. Boucher said.

“We are having continuing exchanges with other governments,” he said. “The secretary has emphasized one of the first goals in that regard is to let the Lebanese have a free and fair election so you have a new government that comes in with political authority from the people.”

Lebanese elections are scheduled for May.

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