Syria Plans Pullback From Lebanon

Thousands of Syrians supporting their leader and denouncing the United States packed a square outside parliament Saturday to hear President Bashar Assad's expected announcement he will pull back his troops in Lebanon closer to the Syrian border.

Assad's announcement, expected during a rare speech to the chamber, is seen as a bid to ease increasing international pressure regarding the presence of 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon and the risk of isolation.

The troops have been there since 1976, and pressure for a withdrawal has escalated since the Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria and Lebanon have been blamed for the killing, but both governments deny involvement.

But President Bush has said anything less than a full withdrawal by May — when parliamentary elections are to be held — would be an unacceptable "half-measure."

Lebanese army troops, meanwhile, took up positions near the Beirut headquarters of Syrian intelligence to provide security and prevent any acts of intimidation against the Syrians, officers said, while anti-Syrian protesters gathered in a square about two miles away.

Plainclothes Syrian security agents stood outside the two-story People's Assembly building in Damascus' downtown Salhiya neighborhood as police towed away cars parked on streets leading to the legislature. Two large screens and loudspeakers were installed outside the building to allow people outside to follow the speech.

About 3,000 Syrians gathered outside ahead of the afternoon speech, many carrying pictures of Assad and his father, the late President Hafez Assad, or Syrian flags. They shouted slogans, including: "Oh God Almighty, safeguard Bashar our leader!" and "Sharon listen, the Syrian people will never bow!" in reference to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Syria's archenemy.

The protesters also chanted "One, one, one, Syrian and Lebanon are one!" and "Bush, Bush, listen, the Syrian people will not bow!"

"Killing and destruction represent America's democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq," one placard read.

An editorial in the government newspaper Tishrin called for Arab nations to stand by Syria's side.

Assad's speech concludes a week of upheaval and Arab pressure on Syria, beginning with the resignation of Lebanon's pro-Syria government and ending with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah telling him face-to-face to get all his forces out of Lebanon quickly.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said he believes Assad will announce a pullback of his country's troops in his line with the 1989 Arab brokered Taif Accord calling for Syria to move its troops to the Lebanese border and for both countries to then negotiate the withdrawal.

Mouallem, during a Friday visit to Moscow, told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Syrian and Lebanese leaders have agreed on an action plan for carrying out the accord, but he would not say when.

"You will hear details of this plan soon," he said.

Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad — a member of the pro-Syria government, which remains in place as a caretaker — said Assad was expected to announce "a redeployment to the Bekaa region" in eastern Lebanon.

Past redeployments, particularly since 2000, have seen some Syrian troops return. Assad wants to keep some troops in Lebanon long-term and conduct a complete removal after negotiating with Lebanon's government, Murad said.

In Lebanon, several hundred flag-waving protesters assembled in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, keeping up the daily anti-Syrian campaign that started after Hariri's assassination. No violence was reported.

The protesters, many dressed in white, waved the red, white and green Lebanese flag in the downtown square in advance of the Assad speech. Many Lebanese blame Syria and their own government in Hariri's killing.

Bush flatly rejected any partial withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and Arab leaders also were likely to be unsatisfied by such a move.

"There are no half-measures at all," Bush said Friday. "When the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal, no halfhearted measures."

Bush issued no military threat, but Arab nations worry Washington or the United Nations may take tough measures to push Syria into leaving Lebanon, which Damascus has dominated for more than a decade.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are leading Arab efforts to get Syria to go beyond a redeployment and quickly remove all troops.

Syrian troops are currently based in the central Lebanese mountains overlooking Beirut and in northwestern regions.

Syria has told Arab nations in behind-the-scenes diplomacy it wants to keep 3,000 troops and early warning stations in Lebanon, but Egypt and Saudi Arabia are pressing Damascus to remove all troops by April.

Arab League-backed Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 as peacekeepers in its 1975-1990 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained and have been the keystone of Syrian domination of Lebanon's politics.

Lebanese officers said the deployment of troops and police near the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Beirut was to provide security. At one point, the troops withdrew to nearby barracks but later returned to their previous positions.

Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt traveled to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on Saturday in apparent efforts to defuse the tension.