Israel to Encourage Withdrawal

Israel's foreign minister said Sunday he would try to rally international support for a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon (search) when he travels to Washington this week.

On Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) announced a two-stage pullback of his forces to the Lebanese border, but failed to address calls to withdraw completely. U.S. and French officials criticized Assad's pledges as insufficient.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) said a Syrian withdrawal would help promote stability and peace efforts in the Middle East.

"The purpose is to act to get Syrian troops out of Lebanon, include Hezbollah on the list of terror organizations, dismantle their terror infrastructure," he told Israel Radio.

"I think those things could also contribute to another of our objectives — progress on the Palestinian front," he said. "If we do both simultaneously, it would contribute much more to the stability of the Mideast, and the possibility of us conducting a dialogue with many more Arab and Islamic countries."

Shalom, who was to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley during this week's trip, said he would raise the issue of Lebanon.

On Sunday, Lebanon Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad said Syrian troops would begin pulling back to the Lebanese border following a Monday meeting of the countries' leaders. Murad said Syrian troops would pull back from Mount Lebanon and northern Lebanon toward the eastern Bekaa Valley closer to the Lebanon-Syria border.

"The Syrian withdrawal will begin Monday directly after the meeting in Damascus of the Syrian and Lebanese leaderships," Murad said.

Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud were to meet in Damascus with other top officials to discuss the pullback.

Israel accuses Syria of harboring Palestinian militant groups and providing support to the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. It has asked the European Union to place Hezbollah on the European list of terrorist organizations. Hezbollah already is on the U.S. State Department lists of terrorist groups.

Syria has come under growing international pressure to withdraw its 15,000 troops in Lebanon since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blamed the killing on the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and its Syrian backers — a charge the government and Syria denied.

Shalom, speaking at a joint news conference Saturday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani al-Mulqi, dismissed Assad's speech as failing to meet a U.N. resolution calling for a "a complete withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon."

Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation, and officials now believe that Syrian pressure is the only thing preventing Lebanon from joining Egypt and Jordan in making peace with Israel.

"Syria does not have a strong army, but it has a big appetite," Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Sunday. "They are in Lebanon more because of economic reasons than because of military reasons. Lebanon can be the next candidate for peace."

The Jordanian minister also called on Syria to withdraw. "Implementation of the resolution should result in a stronger Lebanon and a Lebanon that is undivided," al-Mulqi said Saturday.

Al-Mulqi is making the first visit to Israel by a Jordanian foreign minister in more than four years.

Amman withdrew its ambassador shortly after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in late 2000. Jordan's ambassador recently returned its ambassador after a Feb. 8 Mideast summit where Israel and the Palestinians called for an end to the violence.

In a sign of the warming ties, al-Mulqi invited Shalom to visit Jordan. Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said the trip would likely take place in the next two or three weeks.

Al-Mulqi met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Peres and other Israeli officials Sunday, a day after visiting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

"I come here with a message that we have to continue on the road for peace," al-Mulqi said after meeting Sharon. "We have been saying for a long time that we want peace for future generations. Today we say we want peace for us first."

Sharon's office, meanwhile, confirmed the Israeli leader will travel to Washington next month for talks with President Bush. A spokesman declined to confirm a report in the Haaretz daily that the meeting would take place April 12.

Sharon and Abbas both accepted invitations to the White House from the U.S. secretary of state when she visited the region last month.