By Lin Noueihed BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s pro-Syrian prime minister is expected to step down this week after he failed to persuade opposition figures to join a government that could run the country until elections in May, associates said on Tuesday. Omar Karami resigned a month ago after coming under immense popular pressure from Lebanese angered by the killing of his predecessor Rafik al-Hariri. But he was reappointed by parliament to form a national unity government bringing together both anti-Syrian opposition members and pro-Syrian loyalists. Lebanon’s opposition, which blames Syria and the Lebanese security agencies it backs for Hariri’s death, has refused to join any government until after elections it believes will give it a majority in a chamber now largely allied to Damascus.
“I expect Karami to resign on Thursday,” pro-Syrian Environment Minister Wiam Wahhab told Reuters after meeting Karami. An aide to Karami also said he would go within two days.
If the prime minister resigns, President Emile Lahoud would have to consult with deputies once again to choose a new prime minister, a process that could delay the general election.
Opposition figures accuse Karami of procrastinating to avoid elections and have urged him to form a government without them. His old cabinet still holds office in a caretaker capacity.
Karami and Lahoud are both due in Cairo on Wednesday to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an Egyptian government official said. It was not clear what they would discuss.
Hariri’s killing in a Feb. 14 bombing prompted the biggest street protests in Lebanon’s history and plunged the tiny country into its most serious political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war that divided it along sectarian lines.
Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim opposition figures, many of them wartime foes, seized upon popular anger to demand Syria withdraw forces it first poured into Lebanon early in that war.
Facing immense international pressure, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promised to withdraw all troops, intelligence agents and equipment from its neighbor.
Damascus has completed the first stage of a two-phase withdrawal plan, pulling back to the Bekaa valley and withdrawing nearly half the 14,000 troops it kept in Lebanon.
More than 2,000 Syrian troops have left in the past week, inching Syria closer to ending its 29-year military domination.
About a dozen Syrian vehicles crossed the border on Tuesday, witnesses said. More were packing in the southwest of the Bekaa.
“Assad has given instructions for the withdrawal to happen quickly,” Lebanese Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mrad told Reuters. “But nothing has been set.”
A Syrian-Lebanese military committee is due to meet next week to set a timeline for withdrawing the remaining forces.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he expects Syria to complete the pull-out before elections.
The U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss this week ordering an international probe into Hariri’s death in line with the results of a U.N. fact-finding mission to Beirut.
Karami has said he wanted to form only a broad national unity cabinet. He has not officially been approached about leading a possible smaller cabinet of relatively non-partisan figures both sides could accept, sources in his office said.
“It is obvious they were wasting all this time, a month and a few days, so as not to form a government and avoid elections,” Druze opposition lawmaker Ghazi al-Aridi told Reuters.
“The talk is now of a government of 10 people, trusted, credible people, able to hold parliamentary elections.”
But Environment Minister Wahhab said he did not believe a new government would be formed any time soon.
“We have entered a long stage,” he said. “No one has to give them a government they are comfortable with … If they want elections they must enter a national unity cabinet.”