- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria has bowed to international pressure over its support for Iraq’s insurgency and attacks against Israel by ordering the leaders of two extremist Palestinian groups to leave the country.

Khaled Mashaal, the exiled leader of Gaza-based Hamas, and Ramadan Shallah, head of the Damascus branch of Islamic Jihad — both implacably opposed to the Palestinian cease-fire with Israel — have been forced to move to other Arab countries.

“They have gone, and they have told me that they have gone,” said Khaled Fahum, the veteran head of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Damascus. “The government has closed their offices, cut off their phones and shut down their e-mail.”

Mr. Mashaal left for Qatar, while Mr. Shallah was being sheltered by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Mr. Fahum said.

President Bush has called repeatedly on President Bashar Assad of Syria to stop backing terrorist groups in Iraq and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr. Shallah’s flight to Lebanon, however, will heighten concern over Syria’s influence on its tiny neighbor, and over Mr. Assad’s closeness to Hezbollah.

Listed by the United States as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups, but hailed by many Arabs as a heroic resistance movement that defeated Israel in southern Lebanon in 1996, Hezbollah is backed by Syria and Iran.

Last week, in an unprecedented move, leading members of Hezbollah joined the international chorus calling for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon — the central demand of anti-Syrian protesters in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square.

Abdallah Kassir, one of nine Hezbollah members in the Lebanese parliament, said it was time for Syrian troops to depart “with honor,” under the terms of the 1989 Taif agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war.

“The implementation of the Taif agreement is the best and only logical way out of this,” he said. “But the troops should leave according to an agreed timetable.”

He said any withdrawal by Syria “as a result of force” would put Lebanon in danger and would be an insult to Syria.

Syria’s 14,000 soldiers in Lebanon have become the focus of popular protests sparked by the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut last month.

Hezbollah’s intervention appeared designed to protect Syria from suffering long-term damage over the issue. The group is also anxious to stave off implementation of last year’s U.N. Resolution 1559, backed by the United States, France and Britain, which called for foreign forces to leave Lebanon and militias, including Hezbollah, to be disbanded.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of “Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion,” said: “As the strongest of Syria’s regional allies, Hezbollah can encourage Syria to do what is best for Syria. Syria will continue to support Hezbollah, which is rendered even stronger by this and gains a lot of credibility.”

The Islamic Jihad office in the Yarmouk Camp area of Damascus, home to tens of thousands of Palestinians, was locked and abandoned last week. A solitary agent of the Syrian security service manned a makeshift cigarette stall at the corner of the building.

A Palestinian youth who guided a reporter to the office vented his anger at the decision to close it down.

“It is wrong to shut this place,” he said. “Many poor people depended on it for welfare payments to feed their families. But it will not stop our willingness to volunteer for martyrdom. I will always support jihad in our land.”

Toby Harnden contributed to this article from Beirut.

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