Syria Announces Partial Lebanon Troop Pullback

The move comes amid growing pressure from world leaders and street protests in the Lebanese capital of Beirut demanding the complete withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence personnel.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said Syrian troops will leave the capital city of Beirut by March 31 and redeploy in the Bekaa Valley along the Lebanon-Syria border.

The two leaders said their respective governments will then work on an agreement “to complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces.”

Reports from Beirut Monday said Syrian military trucks were seen hauling troops and supplies east toward the Bekaa Valley.

Syria has been a dominant force in Lebanese affairs since it sent troops to intervene in Lebanon’s civil war in 1976. The Taif accord, which ended the war in 1990, called for Syria to pull its troops back to the Bekaa Valley and then negotiate a further withdrawal with the Lebanese government. Assad and Lahoud said Monday that their current agreement complies with the Taif accord.

However, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Syria’s plans “did not go far enough” and that “Syria needs to withdraw completely and immediately from Lebanon territory.”

In September of 2004 the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which calls for the complete withdrawal of all Syrian troops and officials prior to Lebanon’s national elections in May 2005. The resolution, which was cosponsored by the United States and France, also calls for the disarming of militant groups, including the Syrian-backed Hezbollah movement.

In a speech to the Syrian parliament on Saturday Assad said his pull back plan will eventually put Syria in compliance with U.N. demands.

Syria’s Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha said Monday that all Syrian troops will be out of Lebanon in “less than two or three months.”

“We will withdraw all our troops to Syria proper,” Moustapha said.

“We entered Lebanon to end a bloody civil war,” Moustapha said. “Now we are withdrawing in compliance with international law. We are giving a good example to the rest of the Middle East.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Monday that until all Syrian forces and officials are out of Lebanon, U.N. Resolution 1559 “is not respected.”

Pressure on Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon came to a head three weeks ago when Lebanon’s popular former Prime Minister, Rafik al-Hariri, a critic of Syria’s influence in Lebanon, was killed in a car bombing. Many Lebanese blamed the assassination on Syria and took to the streets in protest. Syria has denied any role in the killing.