WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Bush said on Tuesday authoritarian rule in the Middle East is the “last gasp of a discredited past” and he demanded Syria pull troops out of Lebanon before Lebanese parliamentary elections in May. Bush used a wide-ranging speech at the National Defense University to lend verbal support to what he called a trend toward democracy in the Middle East. “Suddenly the thaw has begun,” he declared.

Bush specifically pointed to Lebanon, where a pro-Syrian government has fallen due to protests over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, and where Syria is under strong pressure to withdraw 14,000 troops as well as intelligence personnel.

Bush quoted one Lebanese observer he did not identify as saying that “democracy is knocking at the door of this country and if it’s successful in Lebanon it is going to ring the doors of every Arab regime.”

He called on Syria to completely withdraw its forces. “All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair,” he said.

Bush said U.S. policy is no longer geared toward supporting authoritarian rule in the Middle East in the name of stability.

“The advance of hope in the Middle East requires new thinking in the region. By now it should be clear that authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past,” he said.