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Assad Does Not Give Pullout Date, Inciting Large Protests

By Jad Mouawad

The New York Times -- BEIRUT, Lebanon

Two days after the president of Syria left vague the extent of a promised troop withdrawal, he clarified his plan somewhat on Monday: By the end of March, Syria will move its soldiers in Lebanon closer to the border. But he offered no public timetable to remove any troops from the country.

The Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and his Lebanese ally, President Emile Lahoud, said in a statement issued on Monday after they met in Damascus that a pullout of Syria’s 14,000 troops stationed in Lebanon would have to wait for further negotiations with a future Lebanese government.

The announcement fell far short of the expectations of demonstrators in Lebanon as well as demands by President Bush and European leaders for the full dismantlement of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus in Lebanon.

In Beirut, tens of thousands of people took to the streets on Monday in the biggest protests so far since the death of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister whose assassination three weeks ago prompted a series of weekly rallies led by opponents of the Syrian presence here. They repeated accusations that Syria was responsible for the killing.

The eclectic opposition -- composed of Christian, Druse and Sunni Muslim politicians, although notably lacking in Shiite Muslims -- believes that it has already scored precious points against Syria and is eager to press its advantage before parliamentary elections to be held in May.

Monday’s announcement increases the likelihood that Syrian troops will still be in the country when Lebanese go to the polls.

But the protesters have become emboldened by the resignation last week of the pro-Syrian government of Prime Minister Omar Karami, who quit in the face of street demonstrations. The opposition, which has camped out on Beirut’s main square for three weeks, is already gearing up for another rally next Monday.

“The Syrians are playing for time, and I don’t think they will succeed,” said Samir Kassir, a Lebanese political analyst. “This has been obtained by the joint pressure from the street and by the pressure of the international community. Still, it’s a first step in the right direction. That’s why we can’t let the pressure drop now.” Under clear blue skies, protesters convened around noon in Martyrs’ Square, in the heart of the Lebanese capital, where Hariri is buried along with six bodyguards who were killed with him. The crowd shouted, “Syria out!” and “Truth, liberty and national unity,” which has become the rallying cry for the partisans of Hariri and other opposition movements.

Towering above the crowd, thousands of red-and-white flags spotted with the green of Lebanon’s emblem, the cedar, waved in one of the most powerful shows of national unity the country has witnessed since its independence more than 60 years ago.

“The huge majority of Lebanese are in agreement,” said Nassib Lahoud, an opposition legislator. “We want the withdrawal of the Syrian troops, we want the truth about who ordered the killing of Mr. Rafik Hariri, and we want the resignation of those who are responsible for security in the country.”

Demonstrators then marched raucously to the site of Hariri’s killing, in front of the city’s main international hotels. By the time the front of the demonstration reached the site, about a mile away, many were still pouring out of the square in a joyous and tumultuous but peaceful procession.