WASHINGTON (AFP) – The murder of their former prime minister has united the people of Lebanon behind ending a 15-year Syrian occupation, a top US Mideast diplomat said, pointing to such a move as overdue. In response to Rafiq Hariri’s slaying 11 days ago, Lebanese demonstrators demanded Syria withdraw from the country. Beirut announced Thursday an imminent pull back of Syrian troops to the eastern Bekaa Valley near the border. “The assassination, the terrorist murder, of prime minister Hariri has had a very significant impact,” US deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs David Satterfield told US-funded Alhurra television.

“It has in fact been tragically a unifying force in that it has inspired, from what we see, a desire on the part of all communities in Lebanon to look at their future, to look at those factors which have made it difficult for them to pursue their own decisions in peace and in security and in freedom and to try and resolve that issue,” he told the Arabic news service.

As well as vigorous calls for its withdrawal from Lebanese opposition lawmakers, Damascus is under strong international pressure to withdraw from its smaller neighbor.

Syria maintains some 14,000 troops in Lebanon and dominates the political scene.

On Friday, however, a day after Lebanese Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mrad’s announcement of a pullback “within hours,” no troop movements on the ground had been seen.

The two governments agreed in the 1989 Taef accord, which ended Lebanon’s civil war, to a full withdrawal after nearly three decades, as demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

Redeployment of troops to Bekaa would not, however, amount to an end to all foreign interference under the UN resolution.

“The spirit of Taef certainly called — 12 years after redeployment to the Bekaa was to have taken place — for there to be no foreign forces in Lebanon,” Satterfield said.

“After 15 years from the end of Lebanon’s civil war, enough.

“It is time for Lebanon to get on with the business of living as an independent state and for Syria to allow it to do so,” he said.