Syria To Step Back In Lebanon

Syrian troops will begin pulling back to the Lebanese border following a Monday meeting of the countries' leaders, Lebanon's defense minister said Sunday.

A day earlier, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced a two-stage pullback of his forces to the Lebanese border, but he failed to address broad international demands that he completely withdraw the 15,000 troops after nearly 30 years in Lebanon.

Assad also did not respond to President Bush's demand on Friday that Syria withdraw all its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon before its parliamentary elections in May.

In Beirut, Lebanon Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad said Syrian troops would pull back from Mount Lebanon and northern Lebanon toward the eastern Bekaa Valley closer to the Lebanon-Syria border.

"The Syrian withdrawal will begin Monday directly after the meeting in Damascus of the Syrian and Lebanese leaderships," Murad said.

Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud were to meet in Damascus with other top officials to discuss the details of the two-stage pullback.

The first stage of the pullback would take two or three days, Murad said.

Assad was vague about the pullback, leaving it unclear if Syrian forces would eventually leave Lebanon or remain inside the country near the Syrian frontier. But he said his plan would put Syria in full compliance with international agreements and U.N. demands.

"By carrying out this measure, Syria will have fulfilled requirements of the Taif agreement and implemented U.N. Resolution 1559," the Syrian leader said in a rare address to parliament.

Later Saturday, however, Syrian Immigrant Affairs Minister Buthaina Shaaban indicated Syrian troops would withdraw to within their borders.

"The matter is very clear. When an army withdraws it withdraws to inside the country's border," he told Lebanese television.

The United States issued a strong statement of dissatisfaction with Assad's most recent comments, which came after four weeks of political turmoil in Lebanon set off by the assassination of a popular former prime minister.

"As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal — no halfhearted measures," the statement said.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett said in a broadcast interview that Assad's comments represented "more kind of these generalities and half-measures."

"We'll continue to make clear that they understand that the international community is not going to stand by and let Assad continue to have these type of half-measures, but to live up to his international demands," Bartlett said.

He also said that Syria also must "fully withdraw ... secret services and intelligence officials that really keep the clamp of fear in the Lebanese people."

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom dismissed the Syrian president's speech as failing to meet international requirements, which he said include "a complete withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon."

Heading for the United States, Shalom said Sunday he would try to rally international support for a full Syrian withdrawal. Shalom was scheduled to meet in Washington this week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

Shalom told Israel Radio a Syrian withdrawal would help promote stability and peace efforts in the Middle East.

Syria has kept 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 Damascus continued to wield decisive influence with Lebanese officials.

The 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord called for Syria to move its troops to the Lebanese border and for both countries to then negotiate the withdrawal.

The September U.N. resolution, drafted by the United States and France in September, called on Syria to withdraw forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Annan would study Assad's comments and noted that a special envoy had been sent to the area to discuss the September resolution.

Assad's speech also came after a week of Arab pressure, including Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah telling the Syrian leader to remove his forces from Lebanon quickly.

In Saturday's carefully worded address, Assad said, "We would not stay one day if there was Lebanese consensus on the departure of Syria."

"We will withdraw our forces stationed in Lebanon fully to the Bekaa region (in the east) and later to the Lebanese-Syrian border areas," he said.

Assad said that in the last few years Syria has pulled out 60 percent of its forces "voluntarily based upon Syrian will and desire without any pressure."

Thousands of Lebanese have staged almost daily protests since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, which many in Lebanon blame on their pro-Syrian government and its Syrian backers. Both Lebanon and Syria deny involvement.

Hariri, 60, resigned last year amid opposition to a Syrian-backed constitutional amendment enabling his rival, President Emile Lahoud, to extend his term in office.