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Syria Sidesteps Troop Pullout Demand

March 5, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ President Bashar Assad on Saturday sidestepped Bush administration demands that he pull Syria’s 15,000 forces out of Lebanon, saying the withdrawal was a matter for the Lebanese government.

In a rare address to parliament, the Syrian leader outlined a two-step pullback: first to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, nearer to the Syrian border; second, a redeployment from there all the way to the Syrian frontier.

Leaders of both countries were to meet next week to approve the withdrawal plan, Assad said.

In a cleverly worded address to parliament, Assad said, ``We would not stay one day if there was Lebanese consensus on the departure of Syria,″ failing to state that Damascus wields decisive influence with Lebanese officials.

Instead of a full and immediate withdrawal, Assad, as expected, said Syria would gradually pull troops back eastward to the Syrian border.

``Our way is a gradual and organized withdrawal,″ he told the parliament, adding that Syria has ``an interest″ in withdrawing from Lebanon.

The Lebanese people are sharply divided over the presence of Syria’s soldiers. Massive protests in past weeks have demanded Syria’s withdrawal and led to the resignation of the pro-Syrian government last week.

President Emile Lahoud, a staunch Syrian ally, is expected soon to announce consultations for a new prime minister after the government was dissolved last week with the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami.

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