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Syria, Lebanon Agree On Pullback

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Syrian soldiers loaded equipment and furniture into trucks Monday and drove east from Lebanese mountain positions they have held for decades, the first signs of a redeployment announced earlier in the day by the leaders of the neighboring countries.

However, the proposed troop movement was quickly rejected by the United States as insufficient.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud, met in Damascus to outline plans for a withdrawal of the Syrian military. While announcing that the troops would redeploy to the eastern Bekaa Valley closer to the Syrian border by the end of March, they were vague on the timing of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon.

The absence of a timeline was unlikely to satisfy the Lebanese opposition and the international community, which have demanded a full withdrawal of Syria's 14,000 troops.

In a huge display of anti-Syrian fervor, at least 70,000 people – some estimates put the figure at double that number – thronged downtown Beirut, waving Lebanon's distinct cedar-tree flag and thundering, "Syria out!"

"Yes, for withdrawal to the Bekaa, but yes first to the full withdrawal behind the Lebanese-Syrian border," opposition lawmaker Walid Eido told the crowd.

"Freedom! Sovereignty! Independence!" the crowd shouted, massing through the streets toward the site of a bomb blast that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, igniting the angry, though peaceful, protests which the anti-Syrian opposition have dubbed an "independence uprising."

Many Lebanese have blamed Damascus and their own country's pro-Syrian government for Hariri's death. Both governments deny such claims.

Many protesters carried large photographs of Hariri. One group raised a banner that read, "Today we have one target: To liberate our land."

A demonstration of 25,000 people exactly one week ago forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian government. The opposition has continued to call for protests, and one participant, 49-year-old Hanna Farshoukh, said they will not stop "until we get what we want."

The militant Islamic group Hezbollah has called a demonstration for Tuesday in Beirut to show loyalty to Damascus and denounce international interference.

The foreign community — particularly the United States, France, Russia and the United Nations — have firmly demanded that Syria withdraw its troops and cease its political influence on its smaller neighbor. The United States has called for a complete withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents from Lebanon before parliamentary elections expected in April and May.

"We stand with the Lebanese people and the Lebanese people, I think, are speaking very clearly," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who called the Damascus agreement "a half measure."

"They want a future that is sovereign, independent and free from outside influence and intimidation," McClellan said.

Assad and Lahoud said Syrian troops will first pull back from northern and central Lebanon to the east, near Syria's border. Then, military officials from both countries have a month to decide how many Syrian troops will remain in the Bekaa Valley and how long they will stay there.

After a negotiated timeframe, the two governments will "agree to complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces," the announcement said.

Although it did not set a timetable for complete withdrawal, it stated: "The Syrians and Lebanese agree on continuing the withdrawal of Syrian Arab forces."

In Washington, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, told CNN that Syria will withdraw all its troops from Lebanon within a few months. The withdrawal will be done in two stages, he said.

"We entered Lebanon to end a bloody civil war," Moustapha said. "Now we are withdrawing in compliance with international law. We are giving a good example to the rest of the Middle East."

The presidents' statement said they respect all U.N. Security Council resolutions "including Resolution 1559, that should be implemented without double standard," an apparent reference to U.N. resolutions calling Israel to withdraw from Palestinian and Syrian lands occupied since 1967.

Resolution 1559, drafted last September by the United States and France, called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.

In the hours after the presidents met, a scattered movement of Syrian army vehicles began. Up to 15 Syrian army trucks — carrying equipment, ammunition, weapons, mattresses, personal belongings, one towing a bulldozer, another towing a generator — were seen driving up the snaking highway through the central mountains headed toward the Bekaa Valley. Crews repaired two trucks that broke down on the side of the road.

A jeep carrying a general climbed the road toward the Dahr El-Baidar mountain pass. Five trucks apparently carrying equipment covered by sheets crossed into Syria at sundown at the border point of Masnaa, under a light rain. Another 12 empty trucks were spotted coming into Lebanon from Syria, apparently to pick up soldiers and equipment.

Three tanks at Dahr el-Baidar moved out of one position and took up position elsewhere but stayed near by.

Troops also were set to leave northern Lebanon but there was no sign of any movement in that region Monday.

Syria has had troops in Lebanon since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during that country's 1975-1990 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained and Syria has dominated Lebanon's politics since.

Meanwhile, with a partial Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon apparently a done deal, CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger reports there's word of a sweeping new Mideast peace plan ahead of an upcoming Arab summit in Algiers.

Jordan's King Abdullah II is launching a new initiative that offers Israel peace with all Arab states, in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories. Abdullah made the offer on Israeli TV.

Abdullah said he would work to update a 2002 Arab peace offer to take into account Israel's concerns. The plan offered Israel recognition from the Arab world as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians that would include withdrawal from all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and Golan Heights, with an agreed solution for Palestinian refugees. Israel objected to the concept of a total withdrawal and cast doubts on the sincerity of the offer.