BEIRUT - Syrian intelligence agents began evacuating their headquarters in Beirut on Tuesday, partially meeting a key U.S. and Lebanese opposition demand for an end to three decades of Syrian tutelage over its neighbor.
Witnesses said the Syrians were loading equipment from the headquarters in the Ramlet al-Baida district onto two pick-up trucks and removing pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez from around the building.
Syria's often feared intelligence presence has been a key element in its political and military influence on Lebanon since its troops first intervened early in the 1975-90 civil war.
For now Syrian intelligence retains its Lebanon headquarters in the Bekaa Valley town of Anjar, but the closure of the Beirut office indicated that Syrian forces have almost completed the first phase of a withdrawal from Lebanon announced 10 days ago.
"Our view is that there needs to be a complete withdrawal of all Syrian military forces and intelligence services as soon as possible," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Monday after cautiously welcoming news of Syrian pullout pledges.
The dismantling of the headquarters and another Syrian intelligence office in Beirut coincided with a visit to Damascus by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and with initial efforts by Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister to form a unity government to defuse the country's worst political crisis in 15 years.
Mubarak, whose trip was not announced in advance, met Assad, who is under intense Lebanese, Arab and world pressure to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon.
The Egyptian leader, visiting Damascus a week before an Arab summit in Algeria, has said he has been raising the issue of Syria's presence in Lebanon with Assad for the past two years.
Lebanese security sources say the Syrians will complete the first stage of the pullout in the next couple of days. More than 4,000 soldiers returned to Syria last week, while 2,000 more were redeploying to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley.
Syria agreed to move its troops after the Feb. 14 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri sparked fierce anti-Syrian protests in Beirut and global calls for the Syrians to leave.
Pro-Syrian Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami started talks on forming a government of national unity, a challenging task made even harder by a huge anti-Syrian demonstration that turned central Beirut into a sea of flags and banners on Monday.
Karami, forced to resign on Feb. 28 but reappointed last week, began meeting politicians and parliamentary blocs on the make-up of a new cabinet to lead Lebanon to elections in May.
Opposition hostility makes his task almost impossible. Failure could delay the parliamentary polls because a new government must be in place to ask the assembly to pass an electoral law at least a month before the election.
Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving anti-Syrian protesters flooded central Beirut on Monday in Lebanon's biggest rally since Hariri's assassination in a bomb blast a month earlier.
Several opposition leaders, including Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, called for the resignation of Lahoud and Lebanon's Syyrian-backed security chiefs, whom they accuse of playing a part in Hariri's death. Damascus denies any involvement.
The rally, which followed large counter-demonstrations called by the Shi'ite Hizbollah guerrilla group, underline deep rifts among the Lebanese despite the planned departure of Syrian troops who have held the ring in Lebanon since 1976.
Bahiya Hariri, sister of the slain ex-premier and an MP, had harsh words for Syrian-backed officials, but drew boos from the crowd when she described Syria as Lebanon's "sister."
After weekend talks in Damascus and Beirut, U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Syria had promised to withdraw all its troops and intelligence agents in line with a U.N. resolution.