By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press Writer  ALEY, Lebanon – Syrian soldiers stationed in the mountains overlooking Beirut and in Lebanon’s northern regions went about their daily chores Friday, exercising, manning posts

Lebanon has rejected the international inquiry demanded by the United States, France and the Hariri family, but it has expressed willingness to cooperate with foreign investigators.

The killing of Hariri, who was credited with rebuilding Lebanon after the 1975-90 civil war, provoked mass demonstrations against Syria. Lebanese opposition leaders have accused the government and Syria of playing a role in the assassination — a charge both governments deny. The opposition has pledged to bring down the government in a no-confidence motion in parliament on Monday.

The Syrian state-run daily Al-Thawra on Friday called for a review of Syrian-Lebanese relations considering recent tension.

“Despite the heat of the events and their great pressure on decision-makers in both countries, it is urgently necessary to conduct a comprehensive and objective revision of this relationship,” the newspaper said. “The continuation of the type of this relation with all errors weakens it and strengthens those who rely on” foreign countries.

Many Lebanese accuse Syria of controlling Lebanon’s politics and Syrian intelligence of meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

Thursday’s withdrawal announcements from the Syrian and Lebanese governments indicated the Syrian troops would not leave Lebanon at this stage and made clear the withdrawal toward the Lebanese-Syrian border would be on their own terms.

Their statements referred to the 1989 Taif agreement that provides for Syrian soldiers to be stationed in the eastern Bekaa Valley, with a foothold on the high ground and the mountain passes in central Lebanon that overlook the Mediterranean and control the Beirut-Damascus highway.

Lebanese and Syrian military officers were meeting to define “the dates and the way” of the withdrawal, Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad said Thursday.

A pullback could start as early as Saturday, one senior Lebanese security official said on condition of anonymity.

The 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon showed no signs of movement on Friday. In the hills above the mountain resort of Aley, dozens of Special Forces soldiers exercised in an open playground in the morning sun.

Others manned sentries outside a post. One hung sheets in the crisp morning air. Four trucks stood empty at the base. Portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad hung on the facade of a building.

“Don’t talk to me about this subject. Go ask the command,” said a Syrian lieutenant colonel when asked whether a withdrawal was imminent. Then he walked away. Asked whether a withdrawal will take place in the next two days, an off-duty soldier replied: “No, no. We still have a month to go.”

At a Syrian intelligence post at Ramlet el-Baida, on the southern edge of Beirut, a gun-wielding plainclothes Syrian agent sat at the entrance to an office. In the Haikaliya suburb of the northern port of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, laundry hung outside a position.

Syrian troops, which first moved into Lebanon in 1976 amid civil war, are based in the central mountains, the northern regions and the eastern Bekaa, a border area of strategic importance for Syria because of its proximity to Damascus.


The bulk of the Syrian garrison, which once numbered 35,000, has been withdrawn from the coastal areas in redeployments since 2000. A withdrawal to the Bekaa should have taken place in the early 1990s under the Taif accord, and the latest announcement was met with skepticism.

Opposition leader Walid Jumblatt welcomed the Syrian decision but demanded a fixed timetable for a comprehensive withdrawal.

Near the Syrian base outside Aley, about 10 miles east of Beirut, Lebanese paint shop owner Hael Maan had no faith in the withdrawal promises but nevertheless felt good.

“Even if I see them withdrawing, I wouldn’t believe my eyes. Every time we hear that they are withdrawing but they never go. They are always here,” said Maan, 52. “My feeling is the same as the feeling of every Lebanese citizen — we are tired (of the situation) and we want to live in stable conditions.”