MDEIREJ, Lebanon – Syrian soldiers flashed victory signs and waved automatic rifles as they drove east through Lebanon’s mountains Wednesday in the first phase of a pullback, and government lawmakers advised the president to bring back his pro-Damascus prime minister who was forced by opposition protests to resign.
Nominating Omar Karami again as prime minister would be sure to enrage the opposition, which is demanding the creation of a government free of Syrian domination.
But Damascus is eager to keep its hold on the Lebanese leadership as it pulls its forces back to the Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border, and negotiates with the government in Beirut on the troops’ full removal.
In the mountains north and east of Beirut, Syrian soldiers moved out in trucks from bases they have held for almost three decades. In some instances, Lebanese troops were taking their place.
The Syrians waved at journalists as they loaded supplies, packed up their personal belongings and drove east. One helmeted soldier riding in the back of one truck looked backward down the road, chewing and spitting watermelon seeds.
From a truck hauling a 155mm howitzer artillery cannon, a first lieutenant said, “Some of us are going to Syria and some to the Bekaa.”
In Damascus, tens of thousands of people took over the main streets, singing national songs and proclaiming their loyalty to President Bashar Assad. One banner addressed to the president read: “We are all with you, who makes the right decisions.”
Thousands of Syria’s red, white and black flags with its two green stars streamed in the wind. “We sacrifice our blood and our souls for you, oh Bashar!” chanted marchers in the upscale Mezzeh neighborhood,
“Nobody can get Syria out from Lebanon’s heart and mind,” a banner read. “No for antagonist pressures against Syria,” read another.
The rally came a day after Syria’s allies in Lebanon made a thundering show of their strength, with hundreds of thousands turning out for a protest organized by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrilla group to denounce pressure from the United States, France and the United Nations (news – web sites).
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud consulted with lawmakers Wednesday on the prime minister. Karami was forced to resign Feb. 28 when more than 25,000 opposition supporters rallied in Martyrs’ Square, but he has been leading a caretaker government since then.
By early afternoon, 52 of the 54 legislators — all government loyalists — who met with Lahoud advised him to reappoint Karami, according to the presidential press office. The two others — including Karami — did not reveal their nomination.
Lahoud was still to poll independent and opposition legislators and was likely to nominate whoever the majority suggested.
Opposition lawmakers, however, do not intend to put forward a name when they meet Lahoud. Instead, they would reiterate their demands for the new government: the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence officials from Lebanon, the resignation of Lebanese security officials they deem as negligent and a thorough investigation into the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
A number of Syrian military positions in central and northern Lebanon stood empty after late-night withdrawals. Outside Batroun, about 30 miles north of Beirut, Syrian soldiers had evacuated four posts, one of which was then taken over by the Lebanese army, witnesses said.
The redeployment was the first phase of a plan announced Monday by Assad and Lahoud. The 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon are to pull to the eastern Bekaa Valley, then to the border before both sides work out their removal from Lebanon. No timetable was announced.
Lebanese officials said the pullback would be completed by March 23. Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares said he believes the next phase, the full withdrawal from Lebanon, will be “speedy” — but gave no date.
Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad said the movement would include the main Syrian intelligence offices in Beirut, a key Lebanese opposition and U.S. demand.
The opposition has led a series of large anti-Syrian protests in Beirut since Hariri was killed. Many Lebanese have blamed his death on Syria and Lebanon’s pro-Damascus government. Both have denied responsibility.
But Tuesday’s pro-Syrian rally dwarfed the opposition rallies and proved that Hezbollah remains a force in Lebanon.
Syrian newspapers on Wednesday covered their front pages with photos of the demonstration, which they lauded as a “march of loyalty.” In a front-page editorial, the government newspaper Tishrin said the demonstration was “a national Lebanese outcry in the face of all those who have plucked up courage from abroad.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news – web sites) said the United Nations must recognize Hezbollah as a “force in society that one will have to factor in as we implement the resolution,” referring to a U.N. resolution passed last year calling for the withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon and the disarmament of the country’s
Separately, Walid Jumblatt, a top Lebanese opposition leader, headed to Russia for talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the scaling back of Syria’s military presence, the Interfax news agency reported.