After a 2 1/2-year occupation by Israeli soldiers, the sight of a Lebanese army column moving slowly up the main street of this disheveled seaport sent thousands of cheering residents into the streets Saturday in jubilant celebration.
As car horns raised a deafening din, women and children scampered aboard Lebanese tanks to hug and kiss the advancing soldiers. Although food has been in short supply, rice rained down on the troops from balconies.
The soldiers, from the newly created 12th Brigade, stuck Lebanese flags and white carnations in the barrels of their guns and were delayed for hours in their planned deployment around the city by the dancing, singing crowd.
Chanting and Weeping
There were chants of "Welcome to the advancing Lebanese army" led by schoolchildren, and old women wept openly on sidewalks.
In the civil war atmosphere of contemporary Lebanon, it is rare to see such scenes of unbridled patriotism. A Boy Scout band played the national anthem in the town circle, and teen-agers played rousing Sousa marches on a cassette player.
In Beirut, Lebanese Premier Rashid Karami, a Muslim, hailed the Israeli withdrawal from Sidon as a "historic day . . . the day of liberation."
President Amin Gemayel, a leading Christian whose Falangist Party was once aligned with the Israelis, told a meeting at his office in Bikfaya on Saturday that he now saluted "the resistance that was able to compel Israel to withdraw."
Deployed by Nightfall
By nightfall, Lebanese army troops had deployed throughout the Sidon area, setting up roadblocks and placing a protective cordon around the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el Hilwa.
The deployment of the Lebanese army following the departure of the Israelis was in marked contrast to Israel's pullback in September, 1983, from the Shouf Mountain area. Fighting between Christians and Druze broke out in the region minutes after the Israelis left.
Sidon, however, was a picture of harmony Saturday, with Roman Catholic priests freely mixing with leaders of the Shia Muslim militia known as Amal. Cheering residents raised photographs of warring sectarian leaders without incident.
Sidon, which is the largest city in southern Lebanon, is predominantly Sunni Muslim but has large minorities of Christians and Shias.
Warned of Bloodbath
Ever since Israel announced its intention to withdraw, Israeli leaders have been warning that a communal bloodbath was imminent in Sidon.
Halim Fayyad, the governor of southern Lebanon, said Saturday that "the Israelis tried to wage psychological warfare against the Lebanese" by issuing the warnings but that they were unsuccessful.
Fayyad said the city was calm following intensive meetings between leaders of various factions, who agreed to take steps to avoid bloodshed.
"You can see the extent to which people are happy the Israelis are leaving," Fayyad said, pointing to the jubiliant crowds on the streets.
Nazih Bizri, the member of Parliament from the Sidon area, said appeals were being made to Sidon's residents to stay off the streets so that the army could deploy, but the request was largely forgotten in the wild celebrating.
A Spontaneous Air
The Sidon festivities had a distinctly spontaneous air, since the Israelis completed their withdrawal from the Sidon area two days before the scheduled departure deadline of Feb. 18.
With Saturday's withdrawal, the Israelis pulled back to the Litani River, about 17 miles south of Sidon. The Israeli army--which invaded Lebanon in June, 1982, to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization--also still holds positions in eastern Lebanon.
The three-stage pullout is expected to be completed by autumn, but no timetable has been announced.
The last three Israeli Merkava tanks pulled back from the Israeli front lines at the Awwali River, just north of Sidon, at about 11 a.m. Saturday and roared off a side road pursued by hordes of photographers.
Almost hesitantly, they returned to the Awwali crossing point followed by a blue Mercedes-Benz carrying what appeared to be Israeli intelligence officers, then roared away again up a hill.
Israeli Column Appears
Just as the Lebanese began celebrating their deliverance from Israeli occupation, a column of Israeli armored cars arrived, one of them carrying Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, the chief of staff of the Israeli army.
After conferring with the men in the blue Mercedes, Levy held an impromptu press conference, saying there had been no hitches in the first phase of the troop withdrawal.
"The Lebanese army is entering the city, and we are getting out," Levy said. "This is the situation; it was coordinated, and I wish them every success."
Levy then approached the front lines as if to confer with the Lebanese commander, Col. Hassan Tout, who waited a respectful distance up the road, but the Lebanese made no move. Levy waited briefly at the Awwali and then drove off.