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Lebanon Intelligence Official Steps Aside

March 29, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ In new opposition gains against Lebanon’s pro-Syrian leadership, the head of the nation’s military intelligence stepped aside Tuesday and the prime minister was expected to resign for the second time in four weeks after failing to form a new Cabinet.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Azar, the military intelligence chief, decided to take a one-month leave, a senior military official told The Associated Press. Such administrative leaves often are a first step toward resignation.

The opposition has been demanding the resignations of Azar, four other security chiefs and the prosecutor general for alleged negligence after the Feb. 14 assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri, which sparked massive protests against Syria’s three-decade military presence in Lebanon. The government previously resisted opposition pressure to sack the six.

The military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because a formal announcement of the decision has not been made, said Azar requested a one-month ``administrative leave″ and will remain in the country. Maj. Gen. George Houry, head of intelligence in the Mount Lebanon province, was appointed to fill the post in the meantime.

The development came hours after a Cabinet minister said caretaker Prime Minister Omar Karami will step down Thursday, throwing doubts on whether crucial elections can be held before parliament’s term ends May 31.

Karami was forced out of his post by massive protests in late February, but 10 days later President Emile Lahoud named him to create a new government in what was seen as a slap in the face to the opposition.

But after more than two weeks of efforts, Karami was unable to put together what he said he wanted to be a national unity government.

``Prime Minister Karami proposed all possible formulas to form a national unity Cabinet, but the opposition did not agree,″ Environment Minister Wiam Wahhab told AP.

Wahhab said Karami will announce Thursday that he is stepping down.

A government must be formed for elections to be held, since it must draw up an elections law for parliament to pass.

The opposition wants a neutral government aimed only at paving the way for the elections, in which the anti-Syria movement is expected to triumph. The staggered polls are supposed to be held in April and May.

The priority is elections, not a new government, and ``the opposition will facilitate the formation of any government that will help hold elections on time,″ opposition member Samir Franjieh told AP.

In an interview in Tuesday’s edition of As-Safir newspaper, Karami said he has insisted on creating a national unity government.

``As long as these matters have not been achieved, I will inform President Lahoud of my decision to bow out,″ Karami was quoted as saying.

One of his aides confirmed the remarks were accurate.

The opposition, emboldened by the huge demonstrations, has refused to join an all-party Cabinet unless three conditions are met: the appointment of an international investigation into Hariri’s assassination; the dismissal of Lebanese security chiefs deemed responsible for the assassination; and the formation of a bipartisan government that would oversee elections after all Syrian troops and intelligence agents have left Lebanon.

Last week, Lebanon grudgingly agreed to let the United Nations take charge of appointing an investigation into the assassination. But the other two conditions have not been met.

Some opposition members have accused Karami and his pro-Syrian allies of stalling over the formation of a Cabinet in order to scuttle the chances of holding elections on time.

If Karami does step down, the business of forming a government goes back to square one. The president will have to poll legislators on whom to appoint as prime minister designate; the nominee will have to conduct a new round of negotiations on the Cabinet’s composition; and the parliament will have to approve the government.

Syria, which is keen to retain its influence in Lebanon, has been forced by international pressure to reduce its troops in Lebanon from 14,000 when Hariri was killed to 8,000 soldiers _ the lowest level since they entered the country during the second year of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Syrian and Lebanese military officials are due to meet early next month to discuss a final withdrawal. The United Nations and the United States have demanded that all Syrian troops and intelligence officers leave before Lebanon’s elections. Syria has not announced a date for a complete withdrawal.

More Syrian troops will leave Lebanon this week, Lebanese military officials have said. On Tuesday, Syrian troops evacuated an air defense position at Chaat, 15 miles north of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon, witnesses said.

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