Pro-Hezbollah protesters swarm Beirut

Demonstrators vow to remain until U.S.-backed leaders resign

December 02, 2006|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,Chicago Tribune

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In a huge display of people power that echoed Lebanon's 2005 uprising against Syria's presence, hundreds of thousands of supporters of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement and its allies swarmed into the downtown area of Beirut yesterday and pledged to continue to occupy the symbolic heart of the city until the U.S.-backed government resigns.

As night fell, protest organizers set up tents, portable toilets and water tanks to cater to the thousands of people planning to sleep there overnight, setting the stage for what could become a marathon standoff with the government, holed up just yards away behind a barricade of police, coiled barbed wire and armored personnel carriers.

Lebanon's embattled Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who has vowed not to give in to the pressure, was briefly glimpsed on a balcony of the nearby governmental palace but was loudly booed by the crowd.

"Raise your voices so that Siniora can hear you!" one of the organizers shouted to the chanting crowd from a podium set up 100 yards from the gates of the government palace. "Tell him we don't want a government that sells out our country!"

The mood was festive, spirits were high and the protesters said they were determined to heed the instructions of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to keep their demonstration peaceful. They waved Lebanon's cedar flag, the symbol of that earlier revolution, turning the downtown area into a sea of red, white and green that recalled the epic protests of last year.

These protesters said they intend to copy the tactics deployed by those Cedar Revolutionaries, an alliance of Christians, Druze and Sunnis who camped out in the downtown area until Lebanon's pro-Syrian government resigned and Syria agreed to end its 30-year occupation of their country.

"I'll stay here weeks, even months if necessary until the government resigns," said Haitham Azzi, 25, a dubbing technician with a recording company who brought a backpack crammed with camping gear to the event and plans to commute to his job nearby. "This is our democratic right."

But the stakes are higher now, and with both sides vowing not to give in, it is unclear where this crisis will end. America's failings in Iraq have undermined the credibility of its allies in the eyes of many Arabs across the region, and in Lebanon, last summer's ruinous war with Israel has emboldened Hezbollah to seek a greater share of political power.

The U.S. reiterated its support for the Siniora government, which was elected after the Cedar Revolution.

"We do remain very concerned that Hezbollah and its allies, with support from Syria and the Iranian government, are continuing to work to destabilize Lebanon," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey in Washington.

Many protesters, however, said they are proud to count Syria and Iran among Lebanon's friends and accused Siniora's government of being too pro-American.

"This government gives priority to the interests of the U.S. and Israel at the expense of Lebanon's national interests," said Mohammed Ayoub, 40, who traveled from the Bekaa Valley with his wife, four daughters and two sons.

"Syria and Iran are not Lebanon's enemy. Israel is an enemy and has destroyed much of Lebanon," added Ayoub, whose gas station was destroyed during Israel's bombardment of Lebanon's infrastructure last summer.

The massive crowd filled two downtown squares and stretched back along two major avenues as far as the eye could see, easily eclipsing the number of government supporters who rallied in the downtown area last week for the funeral of assassinated Christian minister Pierre Gemayel. It did not seem as large as the renowned March 14, 2005, rally after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Organizers said that demonstration was attended by a million people, but police in Lebanon do not provide reliable crowd counts.

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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