US shrugs at pro-Syria rally in Beirut
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US shrugs at pro-Syria rally in Beirut

AFP | March 8, 2005

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House shrugged off a mass pro-Syria rally in Beirut led by the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah and insisted Damascus must end its presence in Lebanon "as quickly as possible."

"Syria needs to get out of Lebanon. Syria needs to withdraw completely and as quickly as possible," spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.

In the past, Washington has said Damascus must withdraw its roughly 14,000 troops and its intelligence presence from Lebanon "immediately."

McClellan downplayed the demonstration in Beirut, where hundreds of thousands of people expressed opposition to global demands for an end to Syria's presence in Lebanon.

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"We always welcome peaceful demonstrations, and we welcome peaceful demonstrations by the Lebanese people," he said as he emphasized the importance of May elections in Lebanon.

"We hope that the Lebanese people will be able to see a free and fair election where they can express their views. They have not had the opportunity to control their future through the ballot box up until now," said McClellan.

"We believe the Lebanese people aspire to live in freedom and aspire to control their own future, and I think you've seen that from recent demonstrations," he said, referring to anti-Syria protests.

"The Syrian government needs to respond to the aspirations of the Lebanese people and the demands of the international community," he said.


Bush Demands Syria Out of Lebanon by May

Reuters | March 8, 2005

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush on Tuesday demanded Syria pull troops out of Lebanon before Lebanese parliamentary elections in May and give way to a democracy movement he said is providing hope in the broader Middle East.

"The Lebanese people have the right to determine their future free from domination by a foreign power. The Lebanese people have the right to choose their own parliament this spring free of intimidation," Bush said.

The U.S. president used a wide-ranging speech at the National Defense University to lend support to what he called a trend toward democracy in the Middle East and away from authoritarian rule, which he called the "last gasp of a discredited past."

"Across the Middle East, a critical mass of events is taking that region in a hopeful new direction," he said.

Syria's ambassador to the United States vowed Syria would complete the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon before the Lebanese hold parliamentary elections in May.

"They are actually being withdrawn today. We will do this as soon as possible, even a long time before May," the ambassador, Imad Moustapha, told CNN.

In the past six months, a budding democratic movement has gathered strength in the region, seen in the overthrow of the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon, democratic elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, as well as some voting in Saudi Arabia.

Bush pressured Arab governments to allow greater freedoms. He applauded what he called "small, but welcome steps" toward competitive elections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two key U.S. allies that have benefited from American support but now are facing pressure for reform.

Democratic progress had been frozen for decades, Bush said, "Yet at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun."

Bush paid particular attention to Lebanon, where the government fell to protests over the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, and where Syria is under international pressure to withdraw 14,000 troops as well as intelligence personnel.

PRO-SYRIA RALLY IN BEIRUT

In a development that did not fit the U.S. script of events, however, hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Lebanese flooded central Beirut on Tuesday for a pro-Syrian rally called by Hizbollah, Lebanon's last armed militia that is backed by Syria and Iran and dubbed a terrorist group by Washington.

It dwarfed previous protests demanding Syrian troops leave Lebanon. Bush did not mention the pro-Syrian rally but White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it did not change U.S. demands.

Bush said Syria must "end its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon or become even more isolated from the world." He dismissed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's pledge to shift Syrian troops to eastern Lebanon by March 31, calling it a delaying tactic and half measure.

"All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair," Bush said.

McClellan said if Syria refused "then, obviously, you have to look at what the next steps are." Options could include a new U.N. Security Council resolution and the threat of international sanctions.

A bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to toughen sanctions on Syria unless it withdraws completely from Lebanon, and to impose sanctions on companies and countries that provide "destabilizing weapons" to Syria.

Bush made the advance of freedom worldwide the central tenet of his Jan. 20 inauguration speech. On Tuesday, he said the movement will take time, and that U.S. policy was no longer geared toward propping up authoritarian leaders in the name of stability.

"The advance of hope in the Middle East requires new thinking in the region. By now it should be clear that authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past," he said.

Bush also urged Iran to give up nuclear ambitions, which it denies having, and called on Iran to see Iraq's elections as an example of what could be in Tehran. (Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Caren Bohan and Patricia Wilson)

 

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