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Syria Vows to Exit Lebanon This Month

Times Staff Writer

Syria has pledged to pull all of its soldiers and intelligence agents out of neighboring Lebanon by the end of the month, a United Nations envoy said Sunday after closed-door talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The announcement in Damascus, the Syrian capital, was the clearest timeline to emerge yet from Assad’s government, which has been dismantling its military bases in Lebanon under pressure from the international community.

The world body also offered to send a team into Lebanon to monitor the withdrawal, U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said. However, it will be up to the Lebanese government to decide whether to allow the international oversight, he said.

The U.N. offer comes amid mounting anxiety over the difficulty of ensuring that Syria relinquishes its hold on Lebanon before that country’s parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

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Speaking after meeting with Syria’s top officials, Roed-Larsen said Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh had promised that “all Syrian troops, military assets and the intelligence apparatus will have been withdrawn fully and completely by April 30, 2005.”

“Syria has agreed that, subject to the acceptance of the Lebanese authorities, a U.N. verification team will be dispatched to verify the full Syrian military and intelligence withdrawal,” Roed-Larsen said.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said Syria needed to follow through on its promises. “Our position has been constant and clear. There needs to be full and immediate withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces according to a public timetable,” spokesman Lou Fintor said.

Syrian soldiers entered Lebanon in 1976, reportedly at the request of some Christian clans that wanted protection during the country’s civil war. A Syrian peacekeeping presence was given international approval with the 1989 Taif Accord, which put an end to the conflict.

But over the years, Syria became Lebanon’s dominant force by infiltrating major institutions, establishing a vast network of intelligence agents and Lebanese proxies and interfering in even the most marginal aspects of public affairs. Many Lebanese came to resent the Syrian domination.

The Feb. 14 assassination of popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sent waves of opposition to Syria’s presence through Lebanon and the international community, and galvanized support for a resolution passed last year by the U.N. Security Council that ordered a withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country. Syria has been gradually pulling out its forces, and many of the remaining troops have massed in the Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria.

But the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers, which numbered at least 14,000 at the time of Hariri’s assassination, is only a small part of Lebanese liberation from Damascus. It is the subtle, pervasive influence on politicians and intelligence that will be much more difficult to measure or root out.

“You can’t just uproot them like you’re pulling out a tooth,” said Adnan Iskandar, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. “They have a lot of files on a lot of the politicians. They’ll still wield some influence, no doubt.”

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Lebanese are looking forward to the spring elections as an opportunity to shift the proportion of pro- and anti-Syria politicians in parliament.

But the vote could well be delayed by the current political crisis: since the assassination, Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned once, had that move rejected, threatened to resign again and now is struggling to form a government.

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Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti in Washington contributed to this report.

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