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Bush Administration Welcomes Syrian Withdrawal from Lebanon

The Bush administration says Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon is an important first step. Officials stress much more remains to be done before Lebanon can consider itself free of Syrian influence

President Bush has repeatedly called for a full withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence personnel from Lebanon.

On the day Damascus claimed all its troops were out, administration spokesmen welcomed the news but added a cautionary note.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the United States is waiting for the U.N. to verify the withdrawal, adding Lebanon must be free to determine its own future without outside influence.

At the State Department, Spokesman Adam Ereli called the withdrawal an important step but added it is not "the end of the road".

"It is a welcome development," he said. "It is a development that is long overdue. And it is a process that we in the international community are committed to."

He said there are lingering concerns about the number of Syrian intelligence service personnel remaining in Lebanon, and stressed Damascus needs to do more to ensure that upcoming Lebanese elections are free and fair.

"The most immediate next step we will be focusing on at the end of May. And these elections will provide for a new political reality in Lebanon," said Mr. Ereli.

Mr. Ereli indicated hope that the Syrian military withdrawal will pave the way for more positive action from Damascus, and a normal cooperative relationship between the two neighboring countries.

"Withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon after almost 30 years of a presence there is a significant development that should be recognized as such. Is it indicative of better and bigger things to come? I guess the jury is still out. It is hard to say, but one would hope!" he added.

Pressure on Syria to pull out of Lebanon began to build last September, when the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces. Anger over the February 14th assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which some Lebanese linked to Damascus, led to large protests in Beirut, international condemnation, and finally an announcement on March 5 that the Syrian forces would be withdrawn.