The pullback of Syrian soldiers from Lebanon will begin Monday, once the presidents of the two countries have met in Damascus to set the process in motion, the Lebanese defense minister said. Syria's Bashar Assad announced Saturday that the withdrawal would take place in two stages: first to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and later to their common "border areas." The announcement was greeted with cheers in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon's capital, but was rejected as inadequate by the Bush administration. France and Jordan echoed the US sentiment, with Jordan's foreign minister saying the world's demands for a full Syrian withdrawal are not "a condition they can bargain with."
Hizbullah, the Syrian- and Iranian-supported militant organization, called for a massive "peaceful gathering" Tuesday in the center of Beirut to show support for the Syrian pullback and to "reject foreign intervention that is contrary to our independence, sovereignty, and freedom." At a news conference Sunday, Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah, the Hizbullah leader, also said his followers won't give up their weapons because Lebanon still needs them as a defense against Israel. The US and Israel consider Hizbullah a terrorist organization.
Staking out more new ground in its confrontation with Western governments, Iran insisted that the former "can't ask" for a permanent halt to the enrichment of uranium. Any such request will result in the immediate resumption of nuclear fuelmaking, the Tehran government's top nuclear negotiator said. Hasan Rowhani also said any attempt to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions over its nuclear program "will cause problems for the European economy and ... additional problems for America." Iran, he said, saw no need to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency that it is tunneling through a mountain next to its Isfahan nuclear plant. He boasted that the concrete structure is being built so that "airstrikes won't be able to do anything against it."
A symbolic date - Wednesday of next week - was set as the deadline for formation of a new government in Iraq and the first meeting of its National Assembly, or parliament. March 16 is the anniversary of the 1988 chemical attack by former dictator Saddam Hussein's forces on the Kurdish town of Halabja, which killed about 5,000 people. Shiite politicians agreed to the deadline Saturday under prodding from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, their spiritual leader. A sticking point has been Kurdish demands for self-rule in northern Iraq. But a senior Shiite spokesman called the Kurdish position "negotiable."