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Pro-Syrian premier likely back in power

Hussein Dakroud Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Bolstered by a massive pro-Syrian demonstration, Lebanese allies of Syria moved Wednesday to reinstate the prime minister, who recently was forced out by anti-Damascus protests. Their action ensures Syria’s continued dominance of Lebanese politics.

Outgoing Prime Minister Omar Karami was virtually assured nomination after 71 legislators put forward his name during consultations with pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, parliament members said. Under the constitution, the president is obliged to comply with the choice of a majority of the 128-member parliament.

Syria is keen to keep its hold on its neighbor’s decision-making as it pulls its 14,000 forces back to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and negotiates with the government in Beirut on the troops’ full removal at a later date. As part of the pullback, forced by international pressure, Syrian soldiers evacuated Lebanese positions in the north and central mountains Wednesday.

Long convoys of Syrian trucks and buses headed east on mountain roads and soldiers evacuated the northern port of Tripoli, witnesses reported. In some cases, Lebanese soldiers quickly took over the Syrian bases. In north Lebanon’s Batroun district, local residents cheered and waved Lebanese flags as the Syrians departed.

President Bush kept up the intense campaign against Damascus, saying Wednesday that Syria’s troop withdrawal plans are just “a half measure” and that Syrian intelligence services exercise “heavy handed” influence in Lebanon’s government.

“One thing a lot of people don’t understand is Syrian influence is heavy handed through the involvement of intelligence services throughout the government,” the president said in a brief question-and-answer session in the Oval Office. “And they must remove both for the election to be free.”

Lebanese parliamentary elections are scheduled for April and May.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also called for a full troop withdrawal and said he was sending an envoy to the region to discuss the matter.

A formal announcement about the prime minister’s reinstatement was to come today after Lahoud meets with parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, said an official at the presidential palace.

The pro-Syrian parliament members apparently were emboldened by a protest by hundreds of thousands in Beirut on Tuesday that was organized by the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. The demonstration showed loyalty to Syria, countering weeks of anti-government and anti-Syrian protests.

Opposition member Samir Franjieh described Karami’s reappointment as a government effort to scuttle any attempts at dialogue.

“It is a step that greatly challenges the opposition and the people’s feelings,” Franjieh said.

He did not say how the opposition plans to react.

The opposition wants a government free of Syrian domination that could prepare for parliamentary elections and impartially investigate the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in a Beirut bombing. They also want a complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence officials and the resignation of Lebanese security officials they consider negligent.

“These are rightful demands,” opposition legislator Ghenwa Jalloul said before meeting with the president to relay the opposition message.

But Lahoud refused to accept the demands, according to his office, saying the consultations were limited to naming a prime minister. He said the investigation into Hariri’s assassination was already a priority for the Lebanese government.

Hariri’s assassination, which the opposition blames on the Lebanese government and Syrian backers, was the catalyst for anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon and the international uproar against Syria. Both governments have denied involvement.

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