Bye-Bye Beirut

People gather at the beach trying to cool off during a record-breaking heat wave Saturday, July 22, 2006, in Huntington Beach, Calif. The triple digit temperatures strained thermometers and air conditioners and prompted dozens of scattered electricity outages that left residents sizzling.
AP/L.A. Times, Lori Shepler
Syrian forces have abandoned almost all their military positions in and around Beirut in the last five days of surprise troop withdrawals from Lebanon, Lebanese security officials said.

The partial pullout from a country which Syria has dominated for decades, through a military occupation bitterly resented by Lebanon's Christian opposition, appeared to be close to its conclusion early on Tuesday.

The Lebanese officials said Syrian troops had evacuated the vast majority of their positions in Beirut and Mount Lebanon since launching the withdrawal on Thursday.

Syrian troops remained in strategic positions around Beirut airport. A decision to withdraw from there was awaiting approval from the Syrian high command, the security officials added.

The troops also remained in the suburb of Bir Hassan and some positions along the Mediterranean seafront and mountain posts.

Syrian tanks, equipment and personnel streamed along the Beirut-Damascus highway over the weekend and crossed Lebanon's eastern border into Syria.

The partial Syrian withdrawal came after Christian leaders mounted a peaceful campaign demanding an end to Damascus' military presence and management of Lebanese politics.

Syria appeared to have taken into account the rising opposition, which was spearheaded by Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who was later joined by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

"There is a civil society with particular characteristics in Lebanon, and Syria has to organize its relations with Lebanon in this light," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying on Monday.

His Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara played down the influence of the Lebanese opposition.

"When the Lebanese government found that redeployment was in their interest, then Syria did not hesitate, especially as we declared a long time ago that the matter is up to the two governments which decide the fate of this military presence," Shara told Egypt's Nile television.

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Syrian forces have been discreetly and gradually scaling down their presence in Beirut over the past two years. This was the first time that they announced their intention to redeploy.

They have been hostile to the media in the past but in recent days allowed television crews to film them while withdrawing.

"The debate (about the presence of Syrian troops) has subsided," said Shara, without referring to the Taif peace accord which ended the 15-year Lebanese civil war and stipulated a partial Syrian military redeployment.

Sfeir, the Christian leader, insists on a complete withdrawal and equitable relations with Damascus.

Military experts said the withdrawal might be a tactically wise move. Syrian positions in Lebanon are vulnerable to Israeli attack at a time of high tension.

In April Israeli planes attacked a Syrian radar base in Lebanon, killing three Syrian soldiers in reprisal for an ambush against Israeli troops by Syrian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas.

Security officials said most of the Syrian troops in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley would stay there. Syrian troops, who poured into Lebanon after the outbreak of civil war in 1975, also remain concentrated in and around the northern city of Tripoli.

"The pullout is a good first step," said a senior Lebanese politician. "We are talking about thousands of troops leaving. It was not expected at all."

Last May, Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon after two decades of occupation.

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