Syrian Troops Leave North Lebanon

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The last Syrian troops left northern Lebanon on Friday but left behind intelligence officers in nine offices, while the U.N. Mideast envoy said Syria needs to produce a timetable for a full withdrawal from the rest of Lebanon (search).

Under international pressure, Syria (search) this week began pulling its 14,000 forces back to the eastern Bekaa Valley (search). It is to negotiate with the government on their withdrawal from Lebanon at a later date.

Convoys of Syrian trucks, some towing artillery pieces, were seen driving Thursday night toward northern Syria. Empty trucks and buses arrived in central Lebanon Thursday, apparently to pick up Syrian supplies and soldiers who are headed east.

Nine Syrian intelligence offices remain in the northern Lebanon, including the towns of Tripoli, Akkar, Minye and Amyoun.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Friday that the United Nations expects President Bashar Assad to produce a timetable for the full withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence officers from Lebanon.

Speaking in Amman, where he sought Jordanian support for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 on Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, Roed-Larsen indicated he was optimistic about his meeting with the Syrian president in Damascus on Saturday.

"I expect that we will get the commitment and timetables for the full implementation of 1559," Roed-Larsen told reporters.

When asked whether that meant the complete withdrawal of Syria's 14,000 troops in Lebanon as well as its intelligence officers, Roed-Larsen responded: "I said 'full' and 'timetables."'

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon should include the pullout of intelligence agents -- a stance that matches Washington's view.

"We are examining the recent development of events," Lavrov said after talks with visiting Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt. "We proceed from the assumption that the withdrawal will also apply to representatives of the security services."

Jumblatt said the opposition wants a full withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon, "especially representatives of the security services."

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami said in comments published Friday that international observers are welcome to monitor parliamentary elections scheduled to start next month, the first time Lebanon has signaled an acceptance of foreign monitors.

The holding of free and fair elections, due to begin in April and continue into May, has been stressed repeatedly by the United States.

"The goal in the near term is to make certain that the Lebanese people have a fair opportunity to have free elections and to determine their own political future," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday.

Karami, who was reappointed to his post Thursday, 10 days after resigning amid mass street protests, said he would welcome an international independent delegation headed by former President Jimmy Carter to observe the parliamentary elections, even though he warned that the polls may have to be postponed.

Karami is now responsible for forming a new Cabinet. He said he was not hopeful about prospects for forming a national unity government but would do his best to talk to the opposition.

"I will keep trying to start a dialogue with the opposition, without preconditions," Karami told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. He added, however: "I am now heading a caretaker government ... and I might stay that way for a long time."

The opposition rejected Karami even before his reinstatement was official. They have demanded a neutral government, complaining the national unity proposal was a trap to bring opposition members into the Cabinet without giving them a say in policy-making.

The Christian opposition group Qornet Shehwan rejected Karami's reappointment Thursday, calling it "an escalation that confirms Syria's insistence on the policy of tutelage which the Lebanese have refused and consequently increases the doubts about Syria's seriousness in withdrawing its troops from Lebanon."

Hezbollah's deputy leader said in an interview Friday that his group is not a tool of Syria, and it intends to play a bigger role in Lebanese politics without ending its battle against Israel.

"We are not an arm for anyone," Sheik Naim Kassem told The Associated Press. "We are a Lebanese party with its own convictions and aspirations."

Hezbollah, which took center stage with a massive demonstration in central Beirut this week, is trying to present itself as a Lebanese nationalist group despite its ties to Iran and Syria.

"We don't take orders from anyone and we don't accept to follow any state in the world. We are not a tool in anybody's hand."

Hezbollah has been involved in Lebanese politics for more than a decade and has nine members in the current legislature, whose term expires in May. But it has steered away from the major decision-making as its guerrilla army focused on fighting Israel, earning itself wide respect among Lebanese.

In the Gaza Strip on Friday, masked gunmen from the militant Islamic Jihad group held a pro-Syrian rally, marching through Gaza City's main thoroughfare and burning Israeli and American flags.

About 2,000 people took part, including about 1,500 masked men and some 500 supporters. The demonstrators carried effigies of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with the caption, "you have no place here."