The government moved Tuesday to purge Lebanon's security services of Syrian influence by appointing new chiefs, but put off plans to reform the intelligence apparatus that was once a tool of Damascus.
The cabinet appointed a replacement for a general detained as a suspect in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and removed a police commander associated with the former, pro-Syrian administration.
"This is a very important step on the road to building the security institutions," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told reporters after the cabinet approved the appointments.
The move reduces further the influence of Syria, whose supporters lost control of parliament in the legislative elections of May and June. It was the government's first serious attempt to tackle the decline in security highlighted by a series of mysterious bombings in recent months. But Aridi acknowledged that the cabinet's decision might not have much impact on the explosions.
"It would be ridiculous to say that by mere appointments the situation is over and the security situation is brought under control," Aridi said.
Last week the government admitted it was nowhere close to arresting the people responsible for the bombs, the last of which maimed a prominent TV journalist.
Aridi said the government discussed a plan by the defense and interior ministers "to develop the operations of the security institutions." But the ministers were asked to revise the plan and present it at a later cabinet meeting.
In the most prominent of several appointments Tuesday, the cabinet decided that Brig.-Gen. Wafiq Jizzini of the army would become the new head of the General Security Department, which was the primary intelligence department under its former director, Maj.-Gen. Jamil Sayyed.
Sayyed, who resigned in April, has been in custody since August after being named as a suspect, along with three other generals, in the February 14 assassination of Hariri. Sayyed was generally considered Syria's closest ally in Lebanon's security services.
Hariri's murder, which is being investigated by a UN-appointed commission, was the catalyst for mass protests against Syria and greater international pressure that ultimately forced Damascus to withdraw its army from Lebanon.
The cabinet also appointed a new military chief of staff and a new top judge Tuesday.
It also agreed on a new commander for the Gendarmerie, the uniformed police outside Beirut, to replace an appointment of the previous pro-Syrian government.
Later Tuesday, President Emile Lahoud signed a decree endorsing the cabinet's choice of the new Gendarmerie commander and other appointments in the Internal Security Forces.
The appointments came after months of political wrangling among factions in the half-Christian, half-Muslim Cabinet. Under Lebanon's sectarian system of power sharing, the major Muslim and Christian sects are allocated shares of senior positions, making consensus an arduous task.
In recent days, Lebanese troops have deployed around terrorist bases belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in Naameh, south of Beirut, and in Qusaya, in eastern Lebanon. The group is backed by Syria.
The government has not explained the deployment, but it seems to reflect a fear that pro-Syrian forces might cause trouble if tensions increase between Beirut and Damascus.
Anwar Raja, a PFLP-GC official in Lebanon, on Tuesday denied claims of weapons smuggling from Syria which were highlighted in the Lebanese media. "Those weapons are old and they are to confront the Zionist enemy," he said.
The top official of the Palestinian Fatah faction in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Sultan Abul-Einein, has scoffed at media reports that the Palestinians could act as Syria's henchmen in Lebanon. "Our men and guns are not for hire," he said in a statement.