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Pullback of Syrian troops from Lebanon likely as discontent grows

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Mounting pressure on Syria's regime to ease its grip on neighboring Lebanon produced a promise of action Monday in a statement from Damascus that Syria "soon" will take unspecified steps to withdraw its troops.

The statement by visiting Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa came as President Bush told European leaders that Syria must end its three-decade "occupation" of Lebanon and more than 100,000 Lebanese demonstrators rallied in central Beirut, shouting, "Syria, out!"

"From the littlest baby to the oldest man, we want our country back," said Maurice Baz, 84, a retired lawyer. Baz said that the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bombing last week produced an outpouring of Lebanese opposition to the presence of Syrian troops.

After meeting with Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus, Moussa said that Syria would pull back its forces in accordance with the Taif Agreement, the 1989 treaty that ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

The treaty called for Syria—which entered Lebanon in 1975 as a stabilizing force—to shift its troops to the Bekaa Valley and eventually withdraw completely.

Syria has redeployed several times since 2000, leaving the capital and Lebanon's Mediterranean coast, but still maintains 14,000 troops in the country. Skeptical Lebanese say Syria will never leave without being forced out.

Moussa offered a different perspective.

"There will be talk and steps that we will see soon," he said, without elaborating.

Assad's office had no immediate comment. Syria's official news agency, SANA, said the Moussa-Assad dialogue dealt with "ongoing developments in the Arab arena" but made no mention of a pullout.

Anti-Syrian sentiment reached an all-time high with the Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri in an explosion that also killed 15 others.

In October, Hariri resigned from the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and joined opposition calls for Lebanon's independence.

That made him a target, say opposition leaders, who accuse Syrian agents of being behind the attack that ripped through his motorcade.

Syria has strenuously denied involvement in the killing.

An investigation is continuing, with international pressure mounting for Lebanon to bring in foreign experts to assure credibility.

Lebanon has said it will accommodate a small team of United Nations investigators to report on the case, but it has rejected calls by the United States, France and the European Union for a broader, foreign-led investigation.

The rally and march, held a week after Hariri's murder, started with a moment of silence at 12:55 p.m., the exact minute that the deadly explosion rocked a fashionable seaside district of central Beirut with enough force to blow out windows in a half-mile radius. Similar moments of silence were observed in other cities throughout Lebanon.

Banging on drums and waving red-and-white Lebanese flags, demonstrators heaped invective on Assad and his nation.

"Bashar, you are a thief," they chanted. "We will force you out with our shoes."

Many held pictures of Hariri. One protester held a Catholic cross in one hand and a Quran decked with a white Islamic Druze skullcap in the other, symbolizing a united front in a country often riven by religious differences.

"We are fed up with having our leaders killed whenever anyone dares to express his opinion," said demonstrator Jean Sfeir, 57.

Hariri's death shook the nation of 4 million people and triggered broad sympathy for the multibillionaire developer and statesman, who was credited with revitalizing Lebanon after its bloody civil war. He was also one of the architects of the Taif agreement, which is named for the Saudi Arabian town where it was signed.

The marchers moved in a long procession past the U.N. headquarters in Beirut and Lebanese government offices, where they shouted that "the only army that belongs in Lebanon is Lebanon's."

The protest culminated at Hariri's tomb outside Mohammed al Amin Mosque. A huge white balloon tethered to a pole floated above the grave. On it in Arabic was written, "We will miss you."


(Matza reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LEBANON

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