By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syria’s grip over Lebanon appears to be slipping under international pressure and increasingly bold Lebanese calls for Damascus to pull its army out. With the calls growing increasingly belligerent, Syria gave a pointed reminded that it still wields control, with its 15,000 troops deployed across the country. “The opposition has crossed all the lines,” warned Lebanon’s pro-Syria prime minister, Omar Karami. “If they think that Syria is now weak, this is not true. … We will show them,” Karimi told reporters, without elaborating.

Still, there is an obvious change in the air.

The U.N. Security Council has demanded a Syrian troop withdrawal. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa recently said Syrian troops could be out of Lebanon in two years.

Lebanese opponents of Syrian domination — emboldened by international scrutiny of Syria’s actions by the United States, France and the U.N. Security Council — have made unprecedented calls for Damascus to extract its army and intelligence agents after nearly three decades of deployment in Lebanon, Syria’s much smaller Arab neighbor.

“The tutelage is over and the hegemony has diminished,” declared Marwan Hamadeh, a former Cabinet minister seriously wounded in an October car bomb in Beirut that killed his driver.

Some Lebanese opposition politicians this week demanded “Syrian hegemony be lifted” and pressed their case directly to a Syrian diplomat sent by President Bashar Assad to Beirut in an attempt to defuse tensions. By contrast, Lebanese politicians in the past were summoned to Damascus or were left to deal with Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt, political leader of the Druse sect and one-time Syrian ally who joined the opposition, stepped up the campaign, pointing a finger at Syria in the 1977 killing of Kamal Jumblatt, his father and prominent Lebanese leftist politician who opposed Syria.

The pro-Syrian camp has accused the opposition of taking instructions from Washington and Paris, saying the campaign against Syria also serves Israeli interests. They have said the Syrian army was still needed in the country.

The United States also has been turning up the heat on Syria.

Last week, President Bush (newsweb sites) again accused Syria of sponsoring terrorism, a charge Damascus denies. Washington also accuses Syria of letting Insurgents cross into Iraq (newsweb sites).

However, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz said Thursday that America has no plans to use force against Syria.

Wolfowitz told the Senate Armed Service Committee it is not U.S. policy to destabilize Syria. “It shouldn’t be their policy (the Syrians) to destabilize Iraq, or Lebanon for that matter,” he added.

Syria has a lot to lose from leaving Lebanon, apart from the political influence and security concerns — Damascus is only a 20-minute drive from the Lebanese border.

“The prospect of a more independent Lebanon is not just a threat to Syria’s strategic position vis-a-vis Israel, it is also a threat to the economic interests of the Syrian military-security elite,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments magazine in London.

Syria’s troops crossed into Lebanon in 1976 during the civil war there, which dragged on for another 14 years. The troops have stayed at the government’s request to help restore order, making Syria the main power broker.


Lebanon’s most prominent political exile, former army commander Michel Aoun, said from his Paris refuge of 14 years that the days of Syrian control are over.

“We are triumphing and Lebanon will again become a free, sovereign and independent country,” the ex-general told the Lebanese through satellite television. “You have become a free people. Do not behave in a hostage mentality.”