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Pro-Syria leader expected to be reinstated

Neighbor pulls back forces in Lebanon

BEIRUT -- Bolstered by a massive pro-Syrian demonstration, Lebanese allies of Syria moved yesterday to reinstate the prime minister, who was forced out recently by anti-Damascus protests. Their action appears intended to ensure Syria's continued dominance of Lebanese politics.

Omar Karami, who resigned as prime minister Feb. 28, was virtually assured the nomination after 71 legislators put forward his name during consultations with President Emile Lahoud, who is pro-Syria, parliament members said. Under the constitution, the president is obliged to comply with the choice of a majority of the 128-member parliament.

Syria wants 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 yesterday.

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 left.

President Bush kept up the intense campaign against Damascus, saying yesterday that Syria's troop-withdrawal plans are ''a half measure."

''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.

UN 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.

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

The protest was yet another demonstration that Hezbollah is a force to reckon with in Lebanon. According to a report today in The New York Times, Bush administration officials are reluctantly accepting the view, held by French and UN officials, that if Hezbollah were antagonized it could block Western efforts to remove Syrian forces from Lebanon, and it is therefore better to encourage the group to become a mainstream party.

This emerging stance represents a sharp departure for the United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has campaigned consistently for the Europeans to label it as such in order to restrict its fund-raising.

Meanwhile, Lebanese opposition member Samir Franjieh described Karami's reappointment yesterday as a government effort to scuttle 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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