UNITED NATIONS, March 29 -- Syria's government told the United Nations on Tuesday that it would withdraw all of its troops from Lebanon before Lebanese parliamentary elections this spring.
In a letter to the Security Council, Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa pledged to "carry out a complete withdrawal" of troops "before the coming elections in Lebanon." But Sharaa did not say whether the more than 5,000 Syrian intelligence agents in Lebanon would also leave.
Lebanon FAQ: Frequently asked questions about the political situation in Lebanon and the country's relationship with Syria.
Syria has been under pressure from opponents in Lebanon and from foreign capitals to withdraw the thousands of troops it has maintained in Lebanon since 1976. The pressure intensified after the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which many Lebanese blamed on Syria. Syria has already moved several thousand troops back across the border; others have been redeployed to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.
After discussions this month between U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and Syrian and Lebanese leaders, Secretary General Kofi Annan had said he expected Syria to complete the pullout before the Lebanese elections, which must be held before the end of May, when the parliament's term expires. But the letter from Sharaa was Syria's first known written commitment to withdraw.
In his letter, Sharaa challenged a recent report by a U.N. fact-finding team that said Syria was responsible for creating a climate of violence that led to the bombing that killed Hariri and 17 others. Sharaa denied the report's assertion that Syrian President Bashar Assad threatened Hariri with "physical harm" during a meeting in August if he challenged Assad's control over Lebanon. He called the allegation "false and not substantiated by any material evidence" and asked the Security Council to remove it from the findings.
In Beirut, Lebanon's pro-Syria prime minister, Omar Karami, said Tuesday that he had been unable to enlist opposition members to join his cabinet and would step down in the coming days. Political opponents expressed concern that the government was using the move as a way to postpone the parliamentary elections. Karami, who resigned at the end of February only to be renominated 10 days later, made the announcement after informing the parliament speaker that he had been unable to form the unity government he promised when he returned to office. He said he intended to inform President Emile Lahoud of his decision during a meeting Wednesday.
Karami had pledged upon returning to office that he would remain in the post only if opposition members joined his cabinet, so a unity government could guide the country through the elections. Opposition leaders refused to participate, however. With swelling support, they are increasingly confident they can gain significant ground in the elections, perhaps even winning a majority in the 128-member parliament. The opposition coalition controls roughly one-third of the current legislature.
"This is a good move, because he was part of the problem," Ghattas Khoury, a member of parliament aligned with Hariri's bloc, said of Karami's decision. "But the whole point of this now is to delay the elections. That's what this is all about."
The opposition has refused to join the government until its demands are met. Those include the naming of an international commission to investigate Hariri's assassination and the resignation of Lebanon's intelligence chiefs. On Tuesday, the head of Lebanese army intelligence, Maj. Gen. Raymond Azar, was placed on a one-month administrative leave. Some opposition members interpreted the move as a way of easing Azar out and pledged to continue pushing for the resignations of the remaining intelligence chiefs.
Lebanon's parliament has yet to pass an elections law setting dates and districts for voting, although legislators say it could be done in two sessions once the nearly complete bill is introduced. Karami and his supporters in parliament have refused to introduce the measure, citing the inability to form the cabinet as a primary reason.
Opposition legislators argue that a caretaker government such as the one now in office can legally oversee elections because the process is set out in the constitution.
Wilson reported from Beirut.