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Syria's president says troops will pull back to Lebanon's border

DAMASCUS, Syria—Syria will redeploy its Lebanon-based troops to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and from there to the Syrian border, President Bashar Assad said Saturday in a delicately worded speech designed to defuse international pressure for a full and immediate withdrawal.

"Our way is a gradual and organized withdrawal," Assad told Syrian lawmakers in a rare, nationally televised address to parliament as 3,000 demonstrators outside chanted pro-Syrian slogans and held posters denouncing the United States.

The phased pullback was announced with no timetable.

A U.N. resolution calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces. The Bush administration has called on Syria to remove its 15,000 troops, and additional intelligence agents before Lebanese elections scheduled for May.

"A Syrian withdrawal of all its military and intelligence personnel would help ensure that the Lebanese elections occur as scheduled in the spring, and that they will be free and fair," President Bush said in his weekly radio address.

Bush on Friday said that anything less than a complete withdrawal would be an unacceptable "half-measure."

Syria has maintained troops in Lebanon since 1976. It sent them under an Arab League mandate as peacekeepers during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Many Lebanese resent the presence of Syrian troops and agents and Syria's dominion over Lebanese political and economic life.

Assad said that since 2000 Syria had voluntarily removed more than 60 percent of the 40,000 troops once stationed in Lebanon.

He said further troop removals should be negotiated bilaterally with Lebanon under the 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accords, which ended Lebanon's civil war, and not through international intervention.

While many Syrians expressed relief that Assad's words would turn down the heat on Syria, some opposition figures felt he should have gone further.

"He played a card tonight. But not a strong card," said Suheir Atassi, 32, organizer of an opposition forum that meets monthly in a private home. "Because the United States wanted to hear something specific and not this general discourse."

In Beirut, about 2,000 Lebanese gathered downtown in Martyrs' Square to watch a telecast of the speech. Hundreds waved Lebanese flags.

"Hey y'allah, Syria get out," they shouted, using the Arabic slang for "hurry up."

The square has been a rallying point since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed Feb. 14 in a Beirut bomb blast that many Lebanese blame on their government and its Syrian backers.

In his speech, Assad called the assassination a "despicable crime ... targeting Lebanon's unity and stability." He said bringing the culprits to justice "is a necessity" for Syrians and Lebanese alike.

Demonstrators in Beirut jeered whenever Assad alluded to Syrian-Lebanese solidarity and when he said he would withdraw his forces if Lebanon's government demanded it, neglecting to add that the Lebanese government is under Syrian control.

But many protesters said the speech was a victory for their movement, even though Assad sidestepped a timetable for a Syrian pullback and failed to address the fate of Syrian security agents entrenched in Lebanese society.

"If you compare it to his other speeches, it's a step forward," said Lebanese composer Michel Elefteriades, 34, who is Greek Orthodox. "But we were expecting a little but more, because what we ultimately want is a full and immediate withdrawal."

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who became the de facto leader of Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition movement upon Hariri's death, told Lebanon's LBC television station in a phone interview from Saudi Arabia: "As a first step, it's a good step as it complies with the Syrian withdrawal according to the Taif Accord."

A key Maronite leader in the opposition, Michel Aoun, disagreed. Speaking on al Arabiya television from Paris where he lives in exile, Aoun described Assad's words as "very carefully studied" but not really responsive to the political reality facing Syria.

"The Syrian army should withdraw to the inside of Syrian territories, not to the border," Aoun said. "I call on the Lebanese to be very careful about the wording and not to be happy over the general meaning."

Elefteriades and the others at the square were young, educated and pro-Western. They believe all of Lebanon is united around their revolution, but the largest segment of their society—Shiite Muslims—is all but absent. Most of Lebanon's Shiites support a Syrian presence in their country as insurance against the dominant Maronite Christians.

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(Matza reported from Damascus, Nelson from Beirut.)

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

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