BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian military intelligence (search) started clearing out of its offices in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli on Tuesday in line with demands by the United States and the Lebanese opposition.
The evacuation of the Syrian intelligence service, a widely resented arm through which Damascus (search) controlled many aspects of Lebanese life, has been a key demand of the opposition, which orchestrated a gigantic demonstration Monday in central Beirut.
Syrian agents appeared to be preparing to leave their headquarters at Ramlet el-Baida on the edge of Beirut. Belongings and furniture were loaded into three trucks.
In the city's commercial Hamra district, about two dozen Syrian agents vacated an intelligence office during the afternoon, hours after trucks loaded furniture and belongings.
prothile in the city's commercial Hamra district, about two dozen Syrian agents vacated an intelligence office during the afternoon, hours after trucks loaded furniture and belongings.
The agents, protected by Lebanese police, drove off from the Hamra office in the trucks. A short time later, a doorman hoisted two Lebanese flags at the entrance. A local resident said about 20 agents left in a van and a car.
The evacuation of the Syrian intelligence service has been a key demand of Lebanese opposition, which orchestrated a gigantic demonstration Monday of about 1 million people in central Beirut (search).
Of all Syrian military forces in Lebanon, the intelligence agents dealt most directly with Lebanese, setting up checkpoints and arresting people. Lebanese must go to them to get permits and licenses or even to resolve family disputes. Syrian intelligence also have resolved disputed among Lebanese politicians.
Since the Syrian army withdrew from Beirut in 2000, the headquarters of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon has been in the town of Anjar, a few kilometers (miles) from the Lebanese-Syrian border.
The intelligence offices were the only remnants of Syria's military presence remaining in Beirut following the 2000 withdrawal of army positions from the capital.
A checkpoint and sentry guard a compound housing the headquarters, which includes offices and homes for Syrian intelligence officers.
The Syrians have been occupying the Hamra building's second, third and fourth floors since Syrian forces returned to Beirut in 1987 to stop Muslim militia fighting. It was targeted by a car bomb placed a block away in 1988 during the 1975-90 civil war.
In Tripoli, men were loading trucks outside the two main offices of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon's second-largest city.
Last week, Syria withdrew its troops from northern and central Lebanon, but it left most of its intelligence offices in those regions. However, this week Syria has closed intelligence offices in two northern towns and was packing up in Tripoli on Tuesday. When these moves are finished, Syrian intelligence in northern Lebanon will be confined to three offices in the remote Akkar district.
In Beirut, workers removed and folded a giant portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) that used to hang near the city's seafront corniche. About two dozen Lebanese arrived later at the scene waving flags.
Syrian laborers have been attacked and a bust of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad vandalized recently amid rising anti-Syrian sentiment sparked by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri (search).
Near the U.S. Embassy in the northeastern suburb of Aukar, several thousand protesters, waving Lebanese flags chanted: "Ambassador get out, leave my country free." Two layers of coiled barbed wire and troops blocked the march less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the fortified hilltop compound. The crowd did not attempt to break through as in previous protests that often ended with clashes with security forces.
Pro-Syrian groups have blamed Washington for pressuring Syria into deciding to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon. They also reject a U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution demanding the Syrian withdrawal and the dismantling of militias, a reference to the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah.
The protest, during which an Israeli flag was set afire, was organized by pro-government student groups. The students, among them veiled women, sang Lebanon's national anthem as speakers denounced the United States. Three men climbed an electric pylon and waved Lebanese flags.
"America! America! You are the great Satan," the crowd roared after an organizer shouted through a loudspeaker, borrowing the description Hezbollah's Iranian sponsors use to refer to the United States.
Hezbollah's al-Manar television, reporting from the scene, said the demonstrators' voices would be heard by the ambassador in the "den of spies," referring to the embassy.
Demonstrators carried placards reading, "America is the source of terrorism" and "No to foreign interference." One bore a picture of Iraqi prisoners tortured by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and the words: "This is the American democracy."
Also Tuesday, pro-Syrian prime minister-designate Omar Karami began consultations to form a Cabinet. He has been in caretaker capacity since Feb. 28 when he was forced to quit under popular pressure. But he was reappointed to the job by President Emile Lahoud 10 days later.
Karami met former prime ministers before heading to the parliament in downtown Beirut for talks with Speaker Nabih Berri and later began consultations with legislators. Karami and pro-government groups have called for a national unity government while the opposition demands a neutral Cabinet to oversee the investigation into Hariri's assassination and prepare for parliamentary elections in April and May.
"The only way to face these difficulties, complications and rescue the country is a national unity government," Karami said before meeting lawmakers. "If we can, then that is good and if not we will deal with it later."
Karami's nomination came two days after a March 8 rally called by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah that drew a half-million people. He considered the rally a sign of a support for his re-nomination.
In a competing display of strength, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million anti-Syrian protesters converged on Beirut's Martyrs' Square Monday, the biggest demonstration in Lebanon's recent history. The opposition demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the ouster of Syrian-allied security chiefs and an international inquiry into Hariri's assassination. Many also demanded Lahoud's removal.
The opposition blames Syria and its Lebanese allies for killing Hariri and 17 others in a Beirut street bombing. The opposition has rebuffed calls to join a new government until its demands are met.
Syria has been Lebanon's main power broker since sending troops to its neighbor in 1976 to help quell a civil war. The troops, at times numbering more than 35,000, remained after the war ended in 1990.