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Syrians expected to announce troop pullback from Lebanon

Syrians expected to announce troop pullback from Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian President Bashar Assad was expected to announce a troop pullback to eastern Lebanon near the Syrian border — but not a full withdrawal — in a speech Saturday to parliament, Syrian and Lebanese officials said Friday. The move would fall short of U.S. and Arab demands for a full withdrawal.

Arab powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Egypt want Assad to start quickly on removing all his 15,000 troops from Lebanon, where Damascus has held sway for more than a decade.

President Bush said he wants all Syrian forces out by May, when Lebanon holds parliamentary elections — stepping up previous calls in which he set no deadline.

"There are no half-measures at all," Bush said during an event in New Jersey on his Social Security proposals. "When the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal, no halfhearted measures."

Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad suggested Syria wants to keep some troops in the country on a long-term basis, saying a complete removal of the troops would have to be negotiated between Syria and Lebanon's governments — as called for in an 1989 agreement.

Under the Taif Accord, he said, "the governments of Lebanon and Syria will meet to discuss the number of troops required to stay and outline the areas where they would be stationed until the (Arab-Israeli) issue is settled."

In the speech to the People's Assembly in Damascus, "we expect President Assad to announce a redeployment to the Bekaa region" in eastern Lebanon, Murad — a member of the pro-Syrian government in Beirut — told The Associated Press.

He answered "No" when asked whether the redeployment meant a full withdrawal.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said Syrian and Lebanese leaders have agreed on an action plan for carrying out the Taif Accord, but he would not comment on a timetable or give further details. "You will hear details of this plan soon," he said during a visit to Syria's longtime ally Moscow.

Asked by AP whether Assad would announce the troop pullback Saturday, Mouallem replied, "I think so."

Syria has said in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Arab nations this week that it wants to keep 3,000 troops and early-warning stations in Lebanon, according to an Arab diplomat in Cairo. The Syrian army already operates radar stations in Dahr el-Baidar, on mountain tops bordering Syria. Israeli warplanes have attacked the sites in the past.

It was not clear whether Assad would set a date for the pullback in the speech, announced by the Syrian state news agency. But a commitment from the president before the People's Assembly would strengthen promises by Syrian officials last month that Damascus would carry out the redeployment.

Bush insisted the Syrians withdraw by the elections in May in an interview published Friday in the New York Post.

"I don't mean just the troops out of Lebanon, I mean all of them out of Lebanon, particularly the secret service out of Lebanon — the intelligence services," he told the newspaper. "This is nonnegotiable. It is time to get out," he said. "I don't think you can have fair elections with Syrian troops there."

The White House gave a lukewarm response to the announcement of Assad's speech.

"We need to see action not words," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Syria has redeployed its troops toward the border several times since 2000, and each time some numbers of Syrian troops have left Lebanon completely. Troop levels dropped in recent years from 35,000 to the current level of about 15,000. The last pullback into eastern Lebanon took place in September, but Syrian troops remain in central Lebanese mountains overlooking Beirut.

Last month, Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah said last month if there was a new redeployment, some troops would return to Syria.

But that may not be enough for Arab governments, which have grown increasingly impatient with Syrian reluctance to order a withdrawal outright. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have spoken to Syria about completing a pullout as soon as April, according to Arab diplomats.

Arab leaders are worried that Syrian refusal to leave completely will prompt tougher action by the international community to force it to do so. Syria has fallen into deeper isolation, with even traditional allies France and Russia joining the United States and United Nations in calling for a full withdrawal.

The Lebanese opposition has launched a series of protests demanding the Syrians get out, and a giant demonstration that massed 25,000 people in Beirut on Monday succeeded in forcing the pro-Syrian Lebanese government to step down — a move that stunned many in the Arab world. The government remains in place as a caretaker until a new one is formed.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah told Assad in talks Thursday that his country wants Syria to start soon on a complete pullout and Saudi leaders warned Assad that, if not, their relations will suffer, a Saudi official said. Assad replied only that he would consider a partial withdrawal in the coming weeks, the official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The talks had a sharp tone. Assad explained that he was trying all he can, but that not everything is up to him, the official said. Saudi officials replied that the situation was his problem, the official said.

Late Thursday, Syria's official news agency SANA said "points of view were identical" in the talks, and on Friday the agency dismissed the Saudi official's account of the meeting. "The failure to mention the name of the Saudi official points to a lack of credibility of the report's content," it said.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the U.N. Security Council had held informal discussions about deploying peacekeeping forces in Lebanon to cover the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

"There are already some U.N. peacekeeping forces in the south of Lebanon. It is possible that as part of a phased withdrawal from the Lebanon by Syria — it would have to be swift, but obviously phased so you don't leave a mess — there could be some more peacekeeping troops," Straw said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops has increased since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a killing that plunged Lebanon into political turmoil and brought Syria widespread condemnation.

Associated Press reporters Hussein Dakroub in Beirut and Henry Meyer in Moscow contributed to this report.

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

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