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Hezbollah aims to boost political role

BEIRUT -- Hezbollah intends to take a more active role in Lebanese politics but won't disarm as long as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict persists, a leader of the guerrilla group said yesterday, as its ally Syria nearly completed its troop pullback in Lebanon.

By yesterday evening, almost all Syria's troops had moved into the eastern Bekaa Valley -- nearly three weeks ahead of a March 31 target date to complete the redeployment. Only a few bases and outposts remained in the mountains northeast of Beirut. The troops in northern Lebanon left the country completely.

Under international pressure, Syria this week stepped up its plans to pull its 14,000 forces back. It is to negotiate with the government on their full withdrawal at a later date.

The quickened redeployment came a day before UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen is to meet President Bashar Assad of Syria and press him to announce a timetable for removing the troops.

However, Syrian intelligence agents -- widely feared and resented among Lebanese -- remained in place in all the vacated areas.

The agents are the Syrian authorities who deal most directly with Lebanese, setting up checkpoints and making arrests. People must go to them to get permits and licenses or even to resolve family disputes. Their offices are in apartment buildings, plainly visible with guards outside.

With the Syrian troops departing, Hezbollah -- the armed group that has battled Israel for years and is branded as terrorist by Washington -- has been making shows of strength, apparently to ensure that Damascus's diminishing power does not lead to a Lebanese government that moves closer to the West and is more open to peace with Israel.

Hezbollah wants to become more involved in Lebanon's politics because ''we felt that Lebanon today is at a crossroad, and this requires that we be more active internally," said Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem.

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