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Syria pulls back from Beirut base

Syrian soldiers dismantled their camps in the hills above Beirut on Wednesday, and the United States praised the move but said Syria must still end its political dominance of Lebanon.

Troops were seen taking down telephone lines and packing equipment at bases near the western towns of Aramoun, Chuwiefat, Damour, Doha and Khaldeh. About 3,000 Syrian troops were to redeploy from around Beirut to eastern Lebanon, probably to the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, where most of Syria's 20,000 troops in Lebanon are located.

Syrian soldiers in about 20 military vehicles, trucks and armored personnel carriers late Wednesday night headed for the mountainous Beirut-Damascus highway after evacuating their positions in Damour on the coast, witnesses said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell applauded Syria for dismantling the camps and said Damascus has offered to cooperate with allied forces in Iraq and its interim government.

Powell, at a news conference at the United Nations after a 45-minute meeting with Syria's foreign minister, called the redeployment a "positive step."

Nevertheless, Powell said Syria, which has controlled Lebanon for decades with some 20,000 troops, was obliged to end the occupation under a U.N. resolution. And he said the United States had other "issues" with Syria, including weapons programs and providing offices for militant groups.

Critics were doubtful about Syria's sincerity.

A skeptical Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the pullback was designed to deflect foreign pressure.

"We don't at this point see a change in Syria's position," Sharon told Israel Radio. "Syria is under U.S. pressure these days because it is helping Iraqi terrorists. . . . They have an interest in taking steps that will take off or weaken the pressure."

Sharon repeated an Israeli demand that Syria crack down on Palestinian militant groups that operate from its territory, and he said Syria must also allow Lebanon to deploy troops along its southern border with Israel to reduce tensions there. Syria maintained the redeployment had nothing to do with international demands or U.N. resolutions.

The decision to pull back was taken because Lebanon's security situation has improved, said an editorial Wednesday in Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling Baath Party in Syria.

"Any danger to Lebanon would lead to a major redeployment, but in the opposite direction," the editorial added.

Syria sent its army into Lebanon in 1976, a year after the civil war began. By the end of the 15-year conflict, it was the power broker of the country.

Syria has made four similar redeployments since 2001. By moving troops away from the capital, the Syrians hope to quiet criticism of their presence in Lebanon.

Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt said this week that the issue was not a matter of Syrian soldiers, but of "joint Lebanese-Syrian security interference in the national public affairs."

The general manager of Lebanon's leading An-Nahar newspaper, Gibran Tueni, said the latest redeployment was insufficient. He demanded that "Syria change its performance in Lebanon."

The move came less than three weeks after a U.N. Security Council resolution called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and allow the country to hold presidential elections as scheduled. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due to report to the Security Council early next month on Lebanon.