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LAST OF SYRIAN SOLDIERS LEAVE LEBANON
LEBANESE CELEBRATE AFTER 29 YEARS OF DOMINATION

The last Syrian soldiers in Lebanon packed into ramshackle buses and rumbled homeward Tuesday, putting an end to 29 years of Syrian military domination of its neighbor.

There was a carnival atmosphere in the Bekaa Valley as the last Syrian soldiers crossed over the border.

On the dusty hillside nearby, young Lebanese men formed a circle and broke into a victory dance to celebrate their country's newfound sovereignty. Women joined in, clapping and stomping. They waved Lebanese flags in the air and cheered as music poured from a pickup truck.

But many Lebanese were frightened about political uncertainty, sectarian divisions and the threat of violence that still shadow the country.

A newly independent Lebanon has to prepare for crucial parliamentary elections this spring to establish its first autonomous government since the civil war ended in 1990.

The country also will have to grapple with the role of Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite political party and militia backed by Syria and Iran. The group has always kept its distance from the government, but may take on a more central role now that Syria is gone.

"It's a victory day, an independence day. We're watching the return of sovereignty to the Lebanese territories," said Fares Souaid, a Maronite Christian lawmaker and prominent Syria opponent. "But now the Lebanese have to face their own problems, and to begin to build a new state."

In a pine-shaded military base in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanese and Syrian soldiers bid one another goodbye Tuesday morning under a blue sky. Most of the Syrian soldiers -- whose numbers peaked at 40,000 during the civil war -- had already crossed the border, but the ceremony marked the formal end of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

"Lebanon will endure. Its rocks, its mountains, its waters will stay," Syrian army chief Ali Habib said in farewell remarks to soldiers of both armies. "And that's thanks to the Syrian military presence, which ensured the unity of Lebanon."

Tuesday's withdrawal represented a dramatic loss of regional clout for Damascus. Control over Lebanon and sway over Hezbollah gave Syria a bargaining tool in any peace talks with Israel.

Without Lebanon, Syria has limited bargaining power.

Analysts say Damascus is now considered a weaker shadow of the tightly controlled state headed by Hafez Assad.

Syrian soldiers had crossed into Lebanon in 1976 at the invitation of a Maronite Christian government looking for protection during the civil war.

Syria became an active party in the war, fighting against, in turn, Palestinian guerrillas, Israeli soldiers and Lebanese militias of various sects. Some 12,000 Syrians died in Lebanon's war; a marble plaque was erected in their memory on Tuesday.

Once the fighting calmed down, Syria was supposed to retreat.

But Syria never left. Instead, Syrian domination spread into the Lebanese military, parliament and business community.

Wide swathes of Lebanese society grew to resent the Syrians and to view their presence as a military occupation.

Earlier this year, the assassination of popular former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri stirred the anti-Syria opposition to a new frenzy. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for his murder, which still hasn't been solved. Syria has denied any role.

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