U.S. again demands that Syria exit Lebanon

Monday, February 28, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A senior U.S. State Department official, keeping up Washington's pressure on Syria, said Sunday that Damascus must pull its 15,000 troops out of Lebanon "as soon as possible" and stop interfering in its affairs.

David Satterfield, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, was to meet Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud today to reiterate demands for the withdrawal and a thorough inquiry into the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive blast that killed 16 others.

Lebanon has said it will cooperate with U.N. investigators but has refused a full foreign investigation of the killing that the country's opposition blamed on the Lebanese government and its Syrian backers. Both governments have denied involvement in the killing that has plunged Lebanon into its worst political crisis in years.

Satterfield, who met with Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, was asked whether Washington considers there to be a deadline for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.

"We want to see it take place as soon as possible," he said, noting that a U.N. Security Council resolution in September called for the immediate withdrawal.

Syria has about 15,000 troops in Lebanon and has said it would pull its forces back closer to its border but will not bring them home.

In Egypt, visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa again rejected pulling all the country's forces out of Lebanon, saying even Lebanon did not want a full withdrawal. Al-Sharra spoke after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

On Thursday, the State Department said a withdrawal closer to Syria's border was not good enough, explaining that the Security Council resolution "calls in clear, unequivocal terms for all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon."

Satterfield said the international community is "calling for an end to foreign interference in Lebanese affairs."

"It is not ... interference for the world to talk of the need for Lebanese to live in freedom," he said.

Preparing for showdown

Satterfield's comments came as Lebanon's pro-Syria government was preparing for a showdown today in Parliament in a scheduled confidence vote. Prime Minister Omar Karami told Al-Arabiya television the situation was open to all possibilities, saying "the government may or may not survive" that vote.

A government collapse can be triggered by losing a vote of confidence, the prime minister stepping down or 10 of the Cabinet's 30 members resigning.

The opposition has urged supporters to demonstrate at the main downtown square near Hariri's grave during Parliament's session. Banks and businesses also were expected to go on strike in a show of the business community's anger about the killing of the billionaire tycoon, who long was the guiding force behind the Lebanese economy.

Though the pro-Syrian government has a supportive parliament, Damascus and Beirut are under considerable domestic and international pressure to respond to the calls for Syria to ease its political and military grip on its tiny neighbor.

In a sign of growing grass-roots, anti-Syrian sentiment, vandals destroyed a bust of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad in the southern village of Qana, police officials said. The officials did not elaborate.

There have been no visible Syrian military moves since Thursday's announcement that the Syrian army will withdraw from western Lebanon to eastern areas near the Syrian border in line with a 1989 Arab-brokered agreement that ended the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

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