Thursday, March 3, 2005

ARNOLD, Md. — President Bush yesterday issued his most forceful demand for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and credited God, not America, for the spread of freedom throughout the Middle East.

Mr. Bush praised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier for turning up the pressure on Damascus during a joint press conference in London on Tuesday.

“Both of them stood up and said loud and clear to Syria: ‘You get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon so that good democracy has a chance to flourish,’” he said during a speech at Anne Arundel Community College.

Encouraged by the fall of Lebanon’s pro-Syria government and other signs of democratization throughout the Middle East, Mr. Bush sought to keep up the pressure for change in the region.

“The world is speaking with one voice when it comes to making sure that democracy has a chance to flourish in Lebanon and throughout the greater Middle East,” he said. “Freedom is on the march. It’s a profound period of time.

“So I look forward to continuing to work with friends and allies to advance freedom — not America’s freedom, but universal freedom, freedom granted by a Higher Being,” he added.

The White House is skeptical of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s recent remark to Time magazine that he would pull back his troops in “the next few months.” The Bush administration wants an immediate withdrawal, as spelled out in United Nations Resolution 1559.

“Words are one thing, actions are another,” said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. “We’ve heard maybe Syrian troops moving in a couple of months. We’ve heard a variety of things, none of which gets to the heart of the matter.”

He added: “We’re not hearing what 1559 calls for, which is full and immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. Those are the magic words, and we haven’t heard them yet.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, who visited Lebanon this week, said Mr. Assad’s “rhetoric” was unconvincing.

“Neither this government nor the people of Lebanon will believe anything other than what we see with our eyes,” Mr. Satterfield said during testimony yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Syria has occupied Lebanon since 1976 and has about 14,000 troops in the country. Popular opposition to the occupation intensified on Feb. 14, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who favored a Syrian withdrawal, was assassinated.

Although Damascus denied any role in the killing, large numbers of Lebanese took to the streets in protest. Their daily demonstrations led to the resignation Monday of the pro-Syrian government.

“The Lebanese people are standing up in the streets of Lebanon and saying: ‘We want to reclaim our sovereignty and independence free from outside interference,’ ” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “And the first step is for Syria to get out of the country.”

The Lebanese government’s opposition yesterday said it would not participate in talks for a new government until there is a “total withdrawal of the Syrian army and intelligence service from Lebanon.” The opposition said such a withdrawal would have to be preceded by “an official announcement” by Mr. Assad.

The United States and France, in an unusual alliance, have been at the forefront of the push for a Syrian withdrawal. They received pledges of support yesterday from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Mr. Blair told Al Arabiya, “The international community will not tolerate anybody trying to interfere with the right of the Lebanese people to elect their own government.”

Mr. Schroeder, in Bahrain, added: “The quicker this happens, the better.”

In Damascus, however, an editorial yesterday in the government-run Tishrin newspaper called Resolution 1559 a “U.S.-Zionist plan” that “will not succeed without setting off fires.”

Other Syrian press outlets called Miss Rice haughty and arrogant for saying Damascus was out of step with regional trends toward democracy.

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Congress are adding their voices to the chorus of calls for a Syrian withdrawal. A pullout was demanded yesterday in a resolution passed by the Middle East subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee.

The resolution, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, calls Lebanon a “captive country” and describes Syria’s occupation as “a long-term threat to the security of the Middle East.”

The measure also demands “the immediate release of all Lebanese detainees in Syria and Lebanon” and calls on Mr. Bush to “freeze all assets in the United States belonging to Lebanese government officials who are found to support and aid” the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

The White House appeared to agree with the resolution.

“While the Iraqi people are moving forward on moving democratic institutions and building a peaceful society, Syria is allowing their territory to be used by regime elements. While the Lebanese people are seeking to build a democratic future, Syria is frustrating those efforts by their continued presence in the country,” Mr. McClellan said.

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