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U.S. Applauds Lebanese Army’s Effort but Doesn’t Demand an Israeli Pullout

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The Bush administration is encouraged by the Lebanese army’s apparent success in disarming Palestinian fighters in southern Lebanon.

But it has not yet indicated whether it will press Israel to withdraw from the security zone it maintains along the border.

“We support the withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces from Lebanon,” State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Monday, apparently referring to both Israel’s military presence and the estimated 40,000 troops Syria maintains there.

“We believe the security and safety of all the people of south Lebanon and northern Israel can best be assured by a strong, effective central government in Beirut and the extension of its authority throughout the country,” she said, reiterating the longstanding U.S. position.

The Lebanese government has asked the United States to help convince Israel to withdraw from the security zone, a 6-mile-wide strip of land along the border that the Israeli army has patrolled since 1985, together with the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia it trains and finances.

For several weeks, the central Lebanese army has been gradually extending its control southward from Beirut.

Government troops have now taken over the last positions held by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the port city of Sidon, which had not been under Beirut’s control since civil war erupted 16 years ago.

The Beirut government argues that now that Israel’s principal security threat is removed, there is no reason for it to maintain a presence in southern Lebanon.

But Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir stated flatly Sunday that Israel would remain in southern Lebanon as long as the region continues to serve as “a base for anti-Israel terrorists.”

NOT ALL GROUPS DISARMED YET

Tutwiler pointed out Monday that not all of the Palestinian fighting groups have been disbanded.

She said she could not confirm reports that the Lebanese army has disarmed the Abu Nidal group, an extremist Palestinian faction that has been engaged in some of the bloodiest acts of international terrorism.

Israel also has made clear that it has no intention of withdrawing while Syrian troops are stationed in Lebanon. It has warned the Syrian army against moving into the southern part of the country.

But it is unlikely that Syria will be pulling its troops out at any point in the near future. In May, Syria and Lebanon signed a Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination, which in effect legitimizes Syrian control over Lebanon.

It is also clear that the Lebanese army could not have successfully disbanded the various militias in southern Lebanon without the backing of the Syrian troops.

Israel may have made its own contribution to the Lebanese army’s effort by reportedly agreeing not to bomb Palestinian terrorist bases in southern Lebanon while the Lebanese army was moving to disarm the Palestinian groups.

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