msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/8/2005 9:46:51 PM ET 2005-03-09T02:46:51

Citing hopeful signs from Lebanon to Afghanistan, President Bush said Tuesday that democracy is beginning to spread across the Middle East and that authoritarian regimes are “the last gasp of a discredited past.”

"At last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun," Bush declared in a speech at the National Defense University, a center for professional military education.

Bush demanded anew that Syria pull its troops out of Lebanon and allow free elections in May. “All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for these elections to be free and fair.”

“Freedom will prevail in Lebanon,” Bush predicted, rejecting the message from a demonstration Tuesday in Beirut by nearly 500,000 pro-Syrian protesters who chanted anti-American slogans.

Great movement of conscience’
“All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience,” Bush told the people of Lebanon. “The American people are on your side. Millions across the Earth are on your side.”

If Lebanon is successful, he added, "it is going to ring the door of every Arab regime."

Video: Bush's doubters rethinking stance Syria on Monday said it would move its troops to eastern Lebanon by March 31, after which new talks with Lebanon on a final pullout would take place.

In his speech, Bush also voiced that "the advance of hope in the Middle East requires new thinking in the region.

“By now it should be clear that authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past.”

“Our duty is now clear,” he said. “For the sake of our long-term security, all free nations must stand with the forces of democracy and justice that have begun to transform the Middle East.”

Ties terror to repression
Bush’s speech was described as an update on the war on terrorism, a struggle that he linked with repressive conditions in the Middle East that he said give rise to extremism.

He credited Pakistan with capturing more than 100 extremists last year, and said Britain had arrested an al-Qaida operative who had provided detailed reports on possible American targets to senior al-Qaida leaders. Bush also cited efforts by Germany, the Philippines and Poland.

Bush also linked Syria with an deadly suicide attack in Israel.

“America and other nations are also aware that the recent terrorist attack in Tel Aviv was conducted by a radical Palestinian group headquartered in Damascus,” Bush said. “Syria as well as Iran has a long history of supporting terrorist groups determined to sow division and chaos in the Middle East. And there’s every possibility they will try this strategy again.

“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.

Easier sell than Social Security
Bush’s speech marked a return to the trademark theme of his successful re-election campaign. After the election, Bush turned his focus to an uphill battle to radically redesign the Social Security program by offering personal investment accounts, a step that would be accompanied by a reduction in future benefits.

While more than half of Americans oppose his Social Security overhaul, a solid majority approve of his handling of the terrorism fight.

Bush, in his Jan. 20 inaugural address, emphasized his goal of spreading freedom and democracy “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Bush has described Iraq as the front line in combating terrorists. More than 1,500 U.S. troops have died there since Bush launched the invasion in March 2003.

The price tag is over $300 billion and climbing, including $81.9 billion more just requested from Congress. The money also covers operations in Afghanistan and the broader war on terror, but the bulk is for Iraq.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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