DAMASCUS, Syria – The Arab League (search) chief said Monday that Syria will "soon" take steps to withdraw its army from Lebanese areas in accordance with a 1989 agreement.
The announcement by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (search) came after a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Assad stressed more than once his firm determination to go on with implementing the Taif agreement and achieve Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in accordance with this agreement," Moussa said.
"Syrian withdrawal is part of Syrian policy and will see steps in this direction very soon," Moussa quoted Assad as saying.
The 1989 agreement signed in Taif, Saudi Arabia, ended the civil war that had started in 1975. Among other things, it called for Syrian forces, which had entered Lebanon ostensibly to separate the warring sides, to withdraw within two years to the eastern Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border.
In Beirut, tens of thousands of opposition supporters shouted insults at Syria and demanded the resignation of their pro-Syrian government in a demonstration Monday, marking a week since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search).
Beating drums and waving Lebanese flags, those of their own parties and portraits of past leaders killed during the 1975-90 civil war, the protesters gathered at the site where Hariri was killed Feb. 14 in a bombing that the opposition blames on Damascus.
Some in the crowd yelled "Syria out!" and "We don't want a parliament that acts as a doorkeeper for the Syrians," competing with loud insults shouted against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Protesters wore scarves of red and white — the colors of Lebanon's flag — which have become the symbol of the opposition's "independence uprising," described as a peaceful campaign to dislodge the pro-Syrian government and force the Syrian army out of Lebanon.
Some protesters carried banners reading, "Independence," and chanted, "The government of puppets must fall" and "Enough blood, leave us alone."
The crowd was estimated in the tens of thousands, with many converging on downtown Beirut from all parts of the Lebanese capital.
"It is my civic duty as a Lebanese to take part in this uprising," said Youssef Mukhtar, a 47-year-old engineer. "Enough bloodshed and disasters. It is the 21st century, and people should be able to govern themselves. The situation has become unbearable and we have to regain our country."
Many held pictures of Hariri and sang patriotic songs. Some protesters held a copy of the Quran in one hand and the cross in another hand to signify Muslim-Christian national unity.
Police and army troops in full battle gear stood guard without intervening, blocking roads with metal barriers. To prevent more potential protesters from reaching Beirut, security forces set up checkpoints on the northern and eastern entrances to the Lebanese capital.
The protest reached its peak shortly before 12:55 p.m., the time that Hariri's motorcade was blown up, killing him and 16 other people and wounding more than 100. The protesters, chanting "All for the Nation," the national anthem, observed a moment of silence at the exact time of the bombing and then began converging on the U.N. offices in the downtown Riad Solh Square to hand a letter to representatives of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
On the way, the protesters marched by the nearby Grand Serail, the prime minister's office, shouting "Syria out!" and "We don't want an army in Lebanon except that of Lebanon!"
The protesters then marched to Hariri's grave outside the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque at the central Martyrs' Square and sang the national anthem. "We want the truth," said one speaker.
On Sunday, Lebanon said it would cooperate with U.N. investigators looking into the assassinations, but stuck to its rejection of a full-fledged international inquiry.
At the same time the Beirut protest was making its way to the grave, about 500 Lebanese in Kuwait gathered near their country's embassy, where they stood for a moment's silence in front of a large poster of Hariri.
"What we want is an international committee to uncover the truth," said Marwan Jamal, a business consultant, 39. "Nobody should think we are divided."
Hariri's killing shook Lebanon and sparked an outpouring of sympathy for the man credited with rebuilding the country from the destruction of civil war, cutting across the sectarian divide.
Hariri was one of the architects of the 1989 Taif agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war, which started in 1975. It called for Syrian forces — which had entered Lebanon ostensibly to separate between the warring sides — to withdraw within two years to the eastern Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border. A total withdrawal was to be discussed between the Lebanese and Syrian governments at a later stage.
Syrian forces have redeployed several times since 2000, leaving Beirut and the coastline. Syria currently maintains about 15,000 troops in Lebanon. Syria's critics in Lebanon have said the withdrawals were tactical and demanded a total pullout and an end to Syrian military intelligence involvement in the country's politics.