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Syria's plan to pull back in Lebanon not enough, U.S. officials say

DAMASCUS, Syria—The White House and anti-Syrian demonstrators in Beirut, Lebanon, criticized a Syrian agreement Monday to pull its troops back toward eastern Lebanon and demanded a clear timetable for a complete withdrawal from the country.

As the agreement, reached in Damascus between the presidents of Syria and Lebanon, came under attack, Beirut braced for mass demonstrations Tuesday by pro-Syrian factions.

Syria's Lebanese allies have largely been silent since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri three weeks ago provoked a outpouring of anti-Syrian sentiment.

Tuesday's rally, spearheaded by Hezbollah, Lebanon's highly organized political and militia faction, is expected to draw a huge crowd of mostly Shiite Muslims, and could easily overshadow the three weeks of pro-democracy, anti-Syrian protests by tens of thousands of Maronite Christians and Sunni and Druze Muslims, many of whom say Damascus controls Lebanon's government.

The dueling demonstrations promise to serve as a stark reminder of Lebanon's fragility and of the country's 1975-90 civil war.

At a ceremony Monday at Syrian President Bashar Assad's white-stone presidential palace overlooking Damascus, he and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud signed an agreement that offered tentative deadlines and vague mechanisms for the Syrian withdrawal.

It called for redeploying Syria's 15,000 troops to a Lebanese mountain ridge overlooking the eastern Bekaa Valley by March 31.

After that, a committee of Syrian and Lebanese military officials will decide and announce within the following month how many troops will remain, where they'll be deployed and how long they'll stay.

After those negotiations, the two governments are to "agree to complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces," the statement said, without elaborating.

"It didn't meet our aspirations, that's for sure," said Lebanese Parliament member Ghattas Khoury, a key Hariri ally.

Lebanon's opposition complained that the announcement didn't address even one of its demands, which include a full Syrian withdrawal by April, the resignations of the pro-Syrian heads of Lebanon's security agencies and of the chief prosecutor, and an independent investigation into Hariri's murder.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the agreement was an unacceptable "half-measure," adding, "We stand with the Lebanese people, and the Lebanese people, I think, are speaking very clearly. They want a future that is sovereign, independent and free from outside influence and intimidation."

Anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon has soared since the assassination of Hariri in a car bombing Feb. 14 that the Lebanese opposition has blamed on pro-Syrian agents. Assad and Lahoud have denied such charges.

After the Damascus meeting, about 10 dilapidated Syrian army trucks loaded with military gear chugged eastward on the Beirut-Damascus highway toward the Syrian border in what looked more like a symbolic gesture than a redeployment.

Only one Syrian troop carrier was on the road, bearing a faded poster of Assad on the windshield and a dozen soldiers in faded uniforms and with a rusty generator in tow.

Syria's troops and intelligence agents entered Lebanon in 1976 under an Arab League mandate to quell the civil war but never left, and many Lebanese have come to resent them as an occupying force.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, drafted last fall by the United States and France, calls for the immediate withdrawal of "foreign forces" from Lebanon.

President Bush has demanded that Syria pull out its troops, dismantle its vast intelligence network in Lebanon and release its grip on Lebanon's political and economic affairs before Lebanese elections scheduled for May.

Syrian officials say they were invited into Lebanon to help quell the civil war and have been drawing down their presence gradually according to international agreements as conditions allow.

Early Monday, tens of thousands of demonstrators filled Beirut's Martyrs' Square near Hariri's tomb chanting, "Freedom, sovereignty, independence."

"You could call this a first step," said one protester, Abbas al Masri, 45, speaking of the Assad-Lahoud announcement. "But I still want to know who killed Hariri."

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(Matza, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported from Damascus; Nelson reported from Beirut.)

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

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

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