updated 3/5/2005 3:16:34 PM ET 2005-03-05T20:16:34

Keeping up the pressure for Syrian forces to leave Lebanon, the United States strongly criticized President Bashar Assad on Saturday for announcing only a partial pullback.

"President Assad's announcement is not enough," the State Department said in a statement hours after he made the pledge in a speech to parliament.

"As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal -- no halfhearted measures," the statement said.

Assad said in Damascus that Syria gradually would pull troops back eastward to the Syrian border.

Bush has said that anything less than a complete withdrawal of 15,000 Syrian troops and intelligence services by May -- when parliamentary elections in Lebanon are to be held -- would be an unacceptable "half-measure."

'Respect the will of Lebanese people'
"The world is watching the situation in Lebanon, particularly in Beirut very closely," the department's statement said. "The Syrian and Lebanese governments need to respect the will of the Lebanese people and the Lebanese must be able to express themselves, free from intimidation and the threat of violence.

"The world will hold the governments of Lebanon and Syria directly accountable for any intimidation, confrontation or violence directed against the people of Lebanon and we have made this clear to both of those governments," according to the statement.

The Bush administration said that the United States and other countries "stand with the people of Lebanon at this critical moment."

The statement said the elections in Lebanon in May "must be free, fair and credible" and allow for monitoring by international observers.

We expect the full cooperation of the Lebanese authorities with the U.N. Fitzgerald inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Syria must not do anything to obstruct or hinder the investigation."

Assad, as expected, outlined a two-step pullback. He said Syria would withdraw its forces first to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, nearer to the Syrian border and then later withdraw them all the way to the Syrian frontier.

'Obstacle to peace'
In his radio address Saturday, broadcast before Assad's speech, Bush noted that French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have joined him in demanding that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

"Syria has been an occupying force in Lebanon for nearly three decades, and Syria's support for terrorism remains a key obstacle to peace in the broader Middle East," Bush said.

The Lebanese are divided over the presence of Syria's soldiers who have been in their country since 1976.

Pressure for a withdrawal has escalated since the Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. At massive protests in recent weeks, people have demanded Syria's complete withdrawal. Last week, the pro-Syrian government in Beirut stepped down.

The United States said it expects "the full cooperation of the Lebanese authorities" into the U.N. investigation of Hariri's killing. "Syria must not do anything to obstruct or hinder the investigation."

A U.N. resolution drafted by the United States and France in September called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.

Assad's speech also was denounced by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., a driving force behind legislation that tightened the U.S. economic squeeze on Syria with a ban on all American exports, except food and medicine, to Damascus.

"A partial pullback by Syria is unacceptable," Engel said in a statement. "Syria must get out of Lebanon now."

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