WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush said yesterday that authoritarian rule in the Middle East has begun to ease, and he insisted anew that Syria must end its nearly three-decade occupation of Lebanon.

Ken Srdjak
A Lebanese policeman observes a pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut yesterday that drew an estimated 500,000. The protest was organized by the militant Islamist group Hezbollah to voice opposition to foreign intervention.(ap photo)

“Today, I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience,” Bush said during a speech on terrorism at National Defense University. “The American people are at your side.”

Nearly 500,000 pro-Syrian demonstrators in Lebanon, however, had a different message. The mass protest in Beirut by people chanting anti-American slogans and carrying placards that read, “America is the source of terrorism,” far outnumbered the 70,000 protesters who shouted “Syria out” on the streets on Monday.

The Bush administration brushed aside the anti-American sentiment, saying it was happy to see people peacefully express their views. Bush, undaunted, listed nations — Russia, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia — that have called for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

“Freedom will prevail in Lebanon,” he said.

“History is moving quickly and leaders in the Middle East have important choices to make,” Bush said. “The world community … has presented the Syrian government with one of those choices: to end its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon or become even more isolated from the world.”

The war on terrorism was the theme of Bush’s re-election campaign, yet he has focused in the early days of his second term on reforming Social Security.

His wide-ranging speech was filled with what he called “welcome signs” of democratic reform in the Middle East, including elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

“The chances of democratic progress in the broader Middle East have seemed frozen in place for decades,” he said. “Yet, at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun.”

Bush said America was safer because dozens of nations have stepped up their efforts to fight terrorists.

Bush cited Pakistan’s capture of more than 100 extremists across its nation, Britain’s arrest of an al-Qaeda operative who had provided detailed casing reports on American targets to senior al-Qaeda leaders, the German arrest of extremists planning attacks against U.S. and coalition targets in Iraq, and the Philippines’ new Anti-Terrorism Task Force’s success in helping capture more than a dozen terrorist suspects.

Former White House security adviser Richard Clarke disagrees that more democracy will mean less terrorism.

“President Bush’s democracy-promotion policy will be appropriate and laudable at the right rime in the right nations, but it is not the cure for terrorism,” Clark, the former top counterterrorism adviser to Bush, said in a recent opinion piece. He said growing resentment is breeding terrorism, “but it is chiefly resentment of us, not of the absence of democracy.”

The speech by Bush did not have the unilateralist overtones of previous addresses.

He trained his most forceful rhetoric on Syria and Iran, nations that he said have long histories of supporting terrorist groups determined to sow division and chaos in the Middle East.

“The time has come for Syria and Iran to stop using murder as a tool of policy and to end all support for terrorism,” the president said.

Bush again rejected Syrian President Bashar Assad’s pledge for a partial pullout of troops in Lebanon. The plan set no deadline for a complete withdrawal of the 14,000 Syrian troops and intelligence agents.

Bush has said that all Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw for the Lebanese elections in May to be free and fair.

At the White House, Bush received support from former presidents Bush and Clinton as they provided an update on aid for tsunami victims in South Asia.

Former President George H.W. Bush said events in Lebanon, the recent elections in Iraq and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s recent promise to allow multi-candidate presidential elections are encouraging.

“There’s still a lot of work to do. But my own view is, it’s positive,” he said.

Clinton said: “Sooner or later, the Syrians are going to have to get out of there and give the Lebanese their country back. And I think the fact that the Lebanese are in the street, demanding it, is wonderful.

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