Lebanon govt. quits, pressure mounts on Syria
Lebanon's Syrian-backed government collapsed Monday, piling more pressure on Damascus, already under fire from the United States and Israel.
Prime Minister Omar Karami, under opposition fire since the Feb. 14 assassination of his predecessor Rafik al-Hariri, told parliament his government was resigning to ensure that it "does not become an obstacle to the good of the country."
The news delighted thousands of flag-waving demonstrators who had defied an official ban to protest at Syrian domination of Lebanon. Banks, schools and businesses had closed after an opposition call for an anti-Syrian general strike.
Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt said the "people have won" and called for calm. "Today we are at a new turning point in the history of the country," he said.
A Syrian official source, who asked not to be named, said only: "This is an internal affair. Lebanon has the constitutional channels that govern these issues."
Syria plays a dominant role in Lebanon and maintains 14,000 troops there. Pressure has been growing within Lebanon and from abroad for a complete military withdrawal.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he thought Washington might eventually resort to military action against his country.
"Washington has imposed sanctions on us and isolated us in the past, but each time the circle hasn't closed around us," Assad told Italy's Repubblica newspaper.
"If, however, you ask me if I'm expecting an armed attack, well I've seen it coming since the end of the war in Iraq."
Asked if an attack was imminent, Assad said: "I don't think so, for now it's just skirmishing. True, the White House language, if looked at in detail, leads one to expect a campaign similar to the one that led up to attack on Iraq."
Syria has come under intense diplomatic fire from Washington since Hariri's killing in a huge bomb blast in Beirut. Many Lebanese blame Syria, which denies responsibility.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State David Satterfield, visiting Lebanon, said Washington wanted "concrete steps" from Syria on insurgent infiltrations in Iraq, the presence of Palestinian militants in Damascus and of Syrian troops in Lebanon.
"Syria should share with the rest of the Middle East, with the rest of the international community, the hope that we have for a stable, prosperous, free Iraq," he said.
In a move viewed by some as an attempt to placate Washington, Syria played a role in the capture of Saddam Hussein's half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti, accused of directing the Iraqi insurgency from Syria.
Iraqi government sources said he was seized by Syrian Kurds in northeast Syria and handed to Iraqi Kurds before being taken into custody by Iraq's forces. Syrian Kurds are tightly watched by Damascus and are unlikely to have acted without its approval.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw welcomed the apparent Syrian role in the capture and said he hoped Damascus was "reassessing its strategic position." But he said terrorists in Iraq were still operating from Syrian soil.
Israel launched a campaign Monday to seek international support for its allegations that Syria was linked to a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed five Israelis Friday and punctured a Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.
Israel hopes that giving foreign diplomats a glimpse of its intelligence on Friday's attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub will encourage a London conference on Palestinian reforms, set for Tuesday, to push Palestinians to crack down on militant groups.
Israel says Syria-based leaders of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad ordered the bombing and, since it hosts them, the Syrian government therefore shares responsibility.
Assad dismissed Israel's accusation as "pointlessly offensive" and denied any role in the attack, which shattered a Feb. 8 truce declared by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said Sunday it was "certainly possible" Israel could strike at Syria, but Vice Premier Shimon Peres signaled Israel was likely to hold fire while Washington led its own pressure campaign.
Israel last attacked in Syria when warplanes bombed a suspected base used by Palestinian militants in October 2003 after a suicide bombing that killed 23 Israelis.
A Lebanese opposition parliamentarian called for popular protests to continue in Lebanon until Syria quits the country.
"The battle is long, and this is the first step, this is the battle for freedom, sovereignty and independence," Ghattas Khouri told protesters after news of Karami's resignation.