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Lebanon's prime minister will quit

Lebanon's prime minister will quit

Lebanon's prime minister will quit
A Syrian army truck towing an anti-aircraft gun moves towards the border in Bekaa Valley east of Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, March 29, 2005, as more Syrian forces are expected to leave this week. A Lebanese military official said 2,000 Syrian soldiers had left the eastern Bekaa Valley and returned home during the past few days.

Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister said Tuesday he would resign, unable to put together a government, and the head of military intelligence stepped aside in new signs the anti-Syrian opposition was gaining momentum in the country's political turmoil.

Prime Minister Omar Karami's decision comes amid a deadlock over forming the government, which must be completed before parliamentary elections can be held. Elections are scheduled for April and May, and the opposition - which is expected to win them - is eager to see them held on time.

It was unclear whether the resignation would end to the standoff. It could delay the ballot because it means the process of finding a leader for the government must start again from scratch.

But it could also be a signal that the pro-Syrian leadership is ready to bend to opposition demands, which would clear the way for the quick formation of a new Cabinet and the organizing of elections.

Lebanon has been in political crisis since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. His death in a bomb blast - which the opposition blamed on Syria and its Lebanese government allies - prompted giant street protests that forced the government at the time, led by Karami, to resign on Feb. 28. Syria and the Lebanese government have denied any role in the killing and Damascus has been struggling to maintain its hold over its smaller neighbor.

In a slap to the opposition, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud brought Karami back as a caretaker prime minister to form a new government on March 10.

Karami had sought to form a national unity government including opposition members. But critics said that aimed only to give legitimacy to a Cabinet that would still be dominated by Syria's allies and they accused Karami of proposing to delay elections that the leadership fears it will lose.

Karami told reporters Tuesday that he would step down - but an official announcement would likely come in the next two days, after he consults with political allies and notifies Lahoud.

The Lebanese opposition is demanding a government formed from anti-Syrian politicians or one made up of respected, neutral figures that would be mandated solely to set up the elections.

Syria has dominated Lebanon for decades, with thousands of troops on its soil and with allies controlling the government and security forces. But the political turmoil is loosening its grip: Syrian troops have been reduced to 8,000 - the lowest level since they entered the country in 1976 during the civil war - and Damascus has promised to remove the rest.

In a sign of possible new flexibility from the leadership, Maj. Gen. Raymond Azar, the head of military intelligence - stepped aside Tuesday, taking a one-month administrative leave, a senior military official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because a formal announcement has not been made.

The opposition has been demanding the resignation of Azar, four other top security chiefs and the prosecutor-general, accusing them of negligence in the investigation into Hariri's death and insisting fair elections are impossible as long as they are in place.

The government has previously resisted opposition pressure to sack the officials.

Copyright © 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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