By Cynthia Johnston BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria completed the first phase of its troop pullout from Lebanon on Thursday, bringing Damascus closer to meeting U.S. and Lebanese opposition demands that it quit the neighbor it has dominated for three decades.  A Lebanese security source said 4,000 to 6,000 Syrian troops had returned home since the pullout plan was announced on March 5, leaving 8,000 to 10,000 in eastern Lebanon. He said all Syrian forces had pulled back to the Bekaa Valley or crossed into Syria. “There are just some logistics left. But the people went, all of them,” he added United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan expects Syria to fully withdraw its forces before Lebanon’s May elections, U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said after briefing Annan on his recent talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Roed-Larsen declined to say if Assad had committed himself to that timetable.

In Washington, a State Department official expressed skepticism the Syrians intended to be out by May.

“I think they are keeping their options open and they are trying to keep from being cornered and for that reason you have a disturbing lack of specificity,” the official said.

The United States says a Syrian withdrawal is needed for the parliamentary elections to be fair and demands the disarmament of Shi’ite Muslim Hizbollah guerrillas.

But Hizbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran (newsweb sites), has vowed to keep its guns to fight Israel rather than confining itself to politics as demanded by President Bush (newsweb sites).

Deepening Lebanon’s political crisis, key opposition leader Walid Jumblatt said he and his allies would not join a government as long as pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud remained in office.

“To join them means to enter into a powerless government headed by Lahoud who is controlling everything,” he told Reuters in his palace in the Chouf mountains. “Who is Lahoud? A Syrian puppet.”

That stance could wreck a bid to forge a unity government by pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, who resigned on Feb. 28 under opposition pressure but was reappointed last week.

Syria bowed to international demands for a troop withdrawal after huge Beirut street protests sparked by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in a Feb. 14 bombing.


A Lebanese-Syrian committee is to meet in early April to discuss any future Syrian presence, the security source said.

Witnesses said the last two Syrian intelligence centers in the city of Tripoli were emptied at dawn. They were among the last to be vacated in northern Lebanon.

Syria’s often feared intelligence apparatus has been a key element in its political and military dominance of Lebanon since its troops first intervened early in the 1975-1990 civil war.


A Lebanese security chief said he and his colleagues, all close to Syria, were ready to go to court to disprove opposition charges they may have had a hand in Hariri’s killing.

Jamil al-Sayyed, the head of Lebanese General Security, rejected opposition calls for him and his colleagues to resign and accused opposition politicians of corruption.

“All chiefs of the security organs are ready to stand trial because we don’t have any secrets,” he told a news conference a day after Syrian intelligence agents quit Beirut.

The Syrian withdrawal has highlighted Hizbollah’s status as the only Lebanese faction that openly retains its weapons.

Many Maronite Christians would like to see Hizbollah disarmed, but Jumblatt said the anti-Syrian camp was not discussing the subject, best left to a national dialogue.

“No one’s talking about weapons,” he said.


Washington says Hizbollah will stay on its list of terrorist groups until it disarms. It was allowed to keep its guns after the 1975-90 civil war to enable it to fight Israeli occupation of the south, which ended in 2000.

It says it will not lay down its guns in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for foreign forces to leave Lebanon and for all militias there to disarm.

Hizbollah brought hundreds of thousands of anti-U.S. demonstrators on to the streets last week in a show of strength in Lebanon, where it has parliament members and runs charities.

The group’s al-Manar television would no longer be available on European satellites from Monday, European regulators said, after it was removed from a Dutch satellite.

(Additional reporting by Roula Najem in Beirut, Lucy Fielder in Mukhtara