BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian soldiers dismantled their camps in the hills above Beirut on Wednesday amid Lebanese and foreign criticism that their pullback will not diminish Syria's political dominance of Lebanon.
Troops were seen taking down telephone lines and packing equipment at bases near the western towns of Aramoun, Chuwiefat, Damour, Doha and Khaldeh.
About 3,000 Syrian troops were to redeploy from around Beirut to eastern Lebanon, probably to the Bekaa Valley (search) near the Syrian border, where most of Syria's 20,000 troops in Lebanon are located.
The move came less than three weeks after a U.N. Security Council resolution called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and allow the country to hold presidential elections as scheduled. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due to report to the Security Council early next month on Lebanon.
But critics were doubtful about Syria's sincerity.
A skeptical Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said the pullback was designed to deflect foreign pressure.
"We don't at this point see a change in Syria's position," Sharon told Israel Radio. "Syria is under U.S. pressure these days because it is helping Iraqi terrorists. ... They have an interest in taking steps that will take off or weaken the pressure."
Sharon repeated an Israeli demand that Syria crack down on Palestinian militant groups that operate from its territory, and he said Syria must also allow Lebanon to deploy troops along its southern border with Israel to reduce tensions there.
The troop movement began Tuesday and was expected to be completed within four days, a senior Lebanese military official told The Associated Press, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
Syria maintained the redeployment had nothing to do with international demands or U.N. resolutions.
The decision to pull back was taken because Lebanon's security situation has improved, said an editorial Wednesday in Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling Baath Party in Syria.
"Any danger to Lebanon would lead to a major redeployment, but in the opposite direction," the editorial added.
Syria sent its army into Lebanon in 1976, a year after the civil war began. By the end of the 15-year conflict, it was the undisputed power broker of the country.
Syria has made four similar redeployments since 2001. By moving troops away from the capital, the Syrians hope to quiet criticism of their presence in Lebanon.
Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt said this week that the issue was not a matter of Syrian soldiers, but of "joint Lebanese-Syrian security interference in the national public affairs."
The general manager of Lebanon's leading An-Nahar newspaper, Gibran Tueni, said the latest redeployment was insufficient. He demanded that "Syria change its performance in Lebanon."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said: "We remain deeply concerned about Syrian intervention in Lebanon and reiterate that, in accordance with Security Council resolution 1559, Syria withdraw all of its forces from Lebanon."
The United States and France drafted the resolution, which was co-sponsored by Britain and Germany.
Lebanese lawmakers ignored the Security Council's demand for presidential elections and amended the constitution to allow pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud (search) to remain in office for three years. Critics saw their vote as evidence of Syria's influence among Lebanese politicians.
The Syrian and Lebanese governments have responded to the resolution by linking calls for a Syrian military withdrawal to U.N. resolutions that demand Israel withdraw from Arab territory, including Syria's Golan Heights (search) — which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Mideast war.