WASHINGTON – Keeping up the pressure on Syria, the United States on Saturday strongly criticized President Bashar Assad (search) for announcing only a partial pullback of his troops from Lebanon.
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"President Assad's announcement is not enough," the State Department (search) said in a statement issued hours after the Syrian leader made the pledge in a speech to parliament.
"As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal — no halfhearted measures," the statement said.
Assad said in Damascus (search) that Syria gradually would pull troops back eastward to the Syrian border.
Bush has said that anything less than a complete withdrawal of 15,000 Syrian troops and intelligence services by May — when parliamentary elections in Lebanon are to be held — would be an unacceptable "half-measure." France, Britain, Germany and Saudi Arabia have made the same demand.
"The world is watching the situation in Lebanon, particularly in Beirut, very closely," the department's statement said. "The Syrian and Lebanese governments need to respect the will of the Lebanese people and the Lebanese must be able to express themselves, free from intimidation and the threat of violence."
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A U.N. resolution drafted by the United States and France in September called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.
"The international community has made clear that Syria must withdraw completely and immediately all its military forces and intelligence services from Lebanon in accordance" with the U.N. resolution, the statement said.
The State Department also said the elections in Lebanon in May "must be free, fair and credible" and allow for monitoring by international observers.
The United States and other countries "stand with the people of Lebanon at this critical moment," the statement said.
Assad's speech was denounced by Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, a driving force behind legislation that tightened the U.S. economic squeeze on Syria with a ban on all American exports, except food and medicine, to Damascus.
"A partial pullback by Syria is unacceptable," Engel said in a statement. "Syria must get out of Lebanon now."
The Lebanese are divided over the presence of Syria's soldiers who have been in their country since 1976.
Pressure for a withdrawal has escalated since the Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The United States said it expects "the full cooperation of the Lebanese authorities" into the U.N. investigation of Hariri's killing. "Syria must not do anything to obstruct or hinder the investigation," the administration said.
At massive protests in recent weeks, people have demanded Syria's complete withdrawal. Last week, the pro-Syrian government in Beirut stepped down. The State Department cautioned both Lebanese and Syrian leaders not to interfere in the Lebanese people's ability to express their views about their future.
"The world will hold the governments of Lebanon and Syria directly accountable for any intimidation, confrontation or violence directed against the people of Lebanon, and we have made this clear to both of those governments," the statement said.
In his radio address Saturday, Bush noted that French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have joined him in demanding that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Bush also has welcomed Saudi Arabia's recent call for Syria to pull out. On Thursday, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah told Assad their relations will suffer if Syria doesn't start soon on a complete withdrawal, a Saudi official said.
"Syria has been an occupying force in Lebanon for nearly three decades, and Syria's support for terrorism remains a key obstacle to peace in the broader Middle East," Bush said in his broadcast taped Friday.
In his speech to parliament, however, Assad sidestepped Bush's demands and outlined a two-step pullback. He said Syria would withdraw its forces first to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, nearer to the Syrian border and then later withdraw them all the way to the Syrian frontier.