March 9, 2005
MDEIREJ, Lebanon - Syrian soldiers flashed victory signs and waved automatic rifles as they drove eastward through Lebanon's mountains on Wednesday, pressing ahead with their evacuation of positions they have held for almost three decades and allowing for the Lebanese army to take their place.
Meanwhile, President Emile Lahoud began consultations with parliament on naming a new prime minister to replace Omar Karami, who resigned Feb. 28 following a massive demonstration demanding his ouster, as well as that of the Syrian military. Voice of Lebanon radio reported that at least 31 members of the 128-person parliament re-nominated Karami.
A huge demonstration is also scheduled to take place in the Syrian capital, Damascus, to show support for that country's embattled president, Bashar Assad, whose government is under intense pressure from Lebanese opposition groups and the United States to stop interfering in Lebanon's affairs.
The protest follows Tuesday's mass pro-Syrian rally in Beirut organized by the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, which attracted an estimated 500,000 anti-U.S, chanting protesters and proved the militant group will be a force to be reckoned with here if Syria leaves.
The demonstration dwarfed a series of anti-Syrian protests that have been staged in Beirut since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese have blamed his killing on Syria and Lebanon's pro Damascus government. Both have denied responsibility.
By Wednesday morning, a number of Syrian positions in central and northern Lebanon stood empty after late-night withdrawals. Outside Batroun, about 30 miles north of Beirut, the Syrian soldiers had evacuated four posts, one of which was then taken over by the Lebanese army, witnesses said.
In Aley, in the mountains east of Beirut, witnesses said some 20 trucks and six buses full of soldiers left one of their main bases at midnight.
Early Wednesday, trucks laden with equipment, supplies and soldiers' personal belongings were seen driving east toward the Bekaa Valley. A helmeted soldier riding in the back of one truck looked backward down the road, chewing and spitting watermelon seeds. Asked where he was headed, he answered: "I don't know."
From a truck hauling a 155mm howitzer gun, a first lieutenant said, "Some of us are going to Syria and some to the Bekaa."
At the mountain base of Dahr al-Wahash, several Lebanese soldiers guarded the entrance of a former Syrian base just off the Beirut-Damacus highway. They said the post had been evacuated around midnight. Lebanese and Syrian officers later toured the large post, which includes a former hospital, and placed a sign at the gate saying: "No Entry. Military Post. For information, contact the Lebanese Army."
At least two empty dozen trucks, including four hauling flatbed trailers for transporting tanks, came down the mountain road toward the Syrian outposts.
Outside one high mountain position near Hammana, vandals had sprayed black paint over the white sign identifying a main road named for the late Syrian president: "Mr. President Hafez Assad Avenue" was barely visible under the paint.
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. But they announced no timetable.
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.
Three weeks of anti-Syrian protests, led by the Lebanese opposition, eventually brought down the prime minister here, and consultations began Wednesday on choosing a new one.
However, the opposition is sending only two lawmakers to the consultations and did not plan to nominate anyone for the position.
Instead, they will reiterate that any potential premier must agree to meet opposition conditions: the full and 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 Hariri's assassination.
Lebanese newspapers have speculated that Lahoud and the parliament - who are mostly pro-Syrian - may nominate Karami to retake his old post, a move certain to infuriate the opposition. By midday, at least 31 of the approximately 60 pro-government legislators had nominated Karami, according to radio reports. The rest of parliament's 128 seats are made up of opposition and independents.
The Hezbollah-staged protest demanded an end to foreign interference, except from the Syrian military, which the protesters made clear they were happy to have stay.
"Lebanon is not Ukraine," Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told the crowd, referring to that country's "orange revolution" last year. "If anyone thinks you can bring down a state with a few demonstrations, a few scarves, a few shouts, a few media, he is suspect, he is wrong."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan 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 militias.