Syria seeks Arab solution in Lebanon

Syrian President Assad met with Saudi officials Thursday, who told him Syria must withdraw all its troops "soon."

With Lebanese opposition groups stepping up their confrontation with Syria, Arab leaders are scrambling to find a diplomatic solution that will allow Damascus to disengage from its tiny neighbor.

Accused of willfully ignoring international demands to withdraw its troops and intelligence apparatus from Lebanon, Syria has begun dispatching top officials to key Arab states to seek a face-saving resolution.

In Saudi Arabia Thursday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was told bluntly that Syria must withdraw all its troops "soon" from Lebanon. Mr. Assad promised to consider a partial withdrawal later this month, the Associated Press reported.

Some analysts say Syria has decided to pull out most of its 14,000 troops and is sounding out Arab leaders on the best way of withdrawing. "I think that what they [the Syrians] are doing now with the Saudis and the Egyptians indicates that they are now aware of the crisis," says Samir Kassir, a columnist for the newspaper An-Nahar.

Assad traveled to Saudi Arabia with his foreign minister, Farouq al-Sharaa, who has already visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the past week.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit said on Wednesday after meeting with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, that they had discussed how to "find a mechanism to implement" last year's United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.

"The Saudis and Egyptians are getting more and more angry after the assassination [of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] and they are trying to avoid a total internationalization of the crisis and to provide an Arabic way to translate 1559 into some concrete steps," Mr. Kassir says.

On Wednesday, President Bush applauded remarks by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier in London earlier in the week. "Both of them stood up and said loud and clear to Syria, 'You get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon so that good democracy has a chance to flourish,' " he said during an appearance in Maryland.

The world, Mr. Bush added, "is speaking with one voice when it comes to making sure that democracy has a chance to flourish in Lebanon."

Simon Karam, former ambassador to the United States and a member of the Qornet Shehwan opposition group, says he would like to see further international pressure on Syria. "Syria has a capacity for mischiefmaking, and they are exercising this so far without constraints," he says. "They should be restrained from bringing havoc to Lebanon the same way Indonesia brought havoc to East Timor."

The diplomatic moves coincide with the Lebanese opposition stepping up pressure on Syria's allies within the country. On Wednesday night, following a meeting at the mountain home of Walid Jumblatt, the most vocal critic of Syria's influence here, the opposition released a seven-point ultimatum to Emile Lahoud, the increasingly beleaguered president. Among the demands are a total withdrawal of Syrian troops, the resignation of Lebanon's top seven security chiefs, and an open investigation into the assassination on Feb. 14 of Mr. Hariri, which sparked the current crisis. If the demands are met, then the opposition says it is prepared to consult with Mr. Lahoud on forming of a new government.

Lahoud has yet to begin formal consultations with parliamentarians for a new government after huge street protests spurred Prime Minister Omar Karami to resign Monday.

If the opposition demands are not met, further huge public demonstrations can be expected, says Mr. Karam. "These are irrevocable demands, a prerequisite for a dialogue" between the opposition and the administration, he says.

Although the president's resignation remains a goal of the opposition, Mr. Karam says that the opposition decided to adopt a more "constructive" stance. "We think that at this stage we [should] behave in a reasonable and cold-blooded manner and engage in dialogue," he says. "But that doesn't mean we sit across the table and reestablish the previous status quo."

Analysts and diplomats here say that the opposition, bolstered by public support, does not want to force the authorities into a corner.

"I don't think the opposition is working to knock over the whole house of cards. There's always a risk that if one is too anarchic, a tough guy could step in," says a European diplomat here.

Lahoud, the diplomat added, remains useful to the Syrians, "because he is loyal and prepared to do what they want on military and intelligence terms. He is a man of unvarying ideas. He has no huge ego and has no agenda of his own at all. So he is very useful to them."

Lahoud's image in Lebanon is taking a battering. Already outraged at Hariri's murder, Lebanese have been further aggravated by the apparently insensitive attitude of authorities toward some families of the other 17 victims of the bomb blast.

On Wednesday, 17 days after the explosion, the body of Abdel-Hamid Ghalayini was found buried beneath a thin layer of rubble close to the bomb crater. The family had been pressing officials to find their relative, missing since the blast. When they were finally allowed to inspect the scene for themselves, it took less than five minutes to discover Mr. Ghalayini's corpse.

Lebanese TV stations broadcast extensive footage of his distraught daughters screaming their fury and demanding Lahoud's resignation.

The footage of the grieving family was bitingly juxtaposed with scenes of a smiling Lahoud in the presidential palace in the hills above Beirut, conversing with his political allies.

"That fatuous image shows just how remote and clumsy Lahoud's image is now," the diplomat says.

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