BEIRUT, Feb 3 (AFP) – The Lebanese opposition has stepped up its campaign for Syrian troops to quit the country, on the back of mounting US impatience with Damascus, which left the Baathist regime on Thursday calling for dialogue. As Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Muwallem held a round of talks with dozens of politicians in Beirut on Wednesday, members of the anti-Damascus opposition met behind closed doors to turn the screws on the Syrian question. Afterwards, it called for a complete Syrian withdrawal in accordance with the Taef agreement and an immediate end to the “dangerous crisis” between Beirut and international community.

The 1989 Taef national reconciliation agreement — which ended the 1975-1990 civil war — called for the Syrian army to pull back to the eastern Bekaa Valley, but did not set a date for the the pullout.

Last September, the UN Security Council passed the US- and French-sponsored resolution 1559, demanding the Lebanese government exercise its sovereignty throughout its territory, disarm militia groups and send home foreign troops.

In the wake of its passing, Damascus — already hit by US economic sanctions — has come under increasing pressure to recall its some 14,000 troops still left in Lebanon.

“The Taef agreement was not meant to legalise the Syrian presence in Lebanon, but arrange its departure,” said Samir Frangie, a Christian who attended Wednesday’s meeting.

“A gradual withdrawal is no longer acceptable. It must be a full withdrawal but in an honourable way,” Druze leader and opposition figure Walid Jumblatt was quoted as telling the As-Safir daily.

Last week in Paris, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, Monsignor Nasrallah Sfeir, affirmed his support for the UN resolution and Lebanese sovereignty.

As the opposition flexes its muscle on the ground, US officials have done what they can to turn the screws in Washington.

“We are now interested in seeing fundamental change indicating that Syria is willing to comply with (UN) Security Council 1559,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield told state-funded Radio Sawa.

In his State of the Union policy speech Wednesday, US President George W. Bush admonished Syria, saying it should end its support for “terror” and open the door to freedom.

But equally, Syrian supporters, such as the Supreme Islamic Council — the most senior Shiite body in Lebanon — have jacked up the rhetoric.

On Thursday, it threatened against “any attention to wage regional change to weaken Syria,” as the head of the Lebanese branch of the Syrian ruling Baath party accused Jumblatt of being a “foreign agent” and warned he was not untouchable.

“It seems that they have gone back to the language of threats but I remember that it was the Baath gangs who killed Kamal Jumblatt,” Jumblatt hit back, referring to his father.

But in Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah appealed for dialogue in order to repair its deteriorating relationship with Washington.

“American officials need to be convinced that the pressure on Syria is futile and that a strengthening of dialogue is the only path,” he told AFP.

02/03/2005 15:30 GMT – AFP