Lebanon marks Hariri assassination

Followers reflect on ex-premier, friction caused by Hezbollah

February 15, 2007|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Two years to the minute after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated with a car bomb, thousands of his followers lapsed into quiet yesterday as church bells clanged and a muezzin sang the call to prayer: "God is great."

Mourning a little, demonstrating a lot, they choked city squares in Beirut to honor the charismatic Hariri - and to rekindle the spirit of righteous outrage that followed his assassination, which many in the crowd believe was carried out by Syria.

At a time when Lebanon stands utterly divided against itself, afflicted by mysterious bombings and drifting in and out of sectarian street fighting, the commemoration seemed to have more to do with the current crisis than with Lebanon's many slain leaders, Hariri included. Instead of weeping for the dead father, the young crowd screamed and swooned for Saad Hariri, his son and political heir.

"We're here to say that not all Lebanese are on the other side. Not all Lebanese are with Hezbollah," said Joyce Mekari, a 28-year-old hotel manager. "We are liberal, independent, open-minded people, actually. We don't want Syria or Iran to interrupt in our country."

She paused and grinned.

"We prefer America and France," she said.

Coils of razor wire and rows of troops cordoned downtown Beirut into two separate cantons. The Hariri supporters came pouring into downtown from along the Mediterranean coast, the Sunni neighborhoods in the south and from nearby Christian neighborhoods. They caroused along, whooping and honking and screaming the names of their leaders, past shop windows of mannequins in spring dresses and pots of pansies blooming in the sunshine.

On the other side of the razor wire, a demonstration meant to bring down the government dragged through yet another fruitless day. Two months after Hezbollah and its allies declared the government a tool of the United States and began their round-the-clock sit-in to demand more power, the pavement has come to resemble a military encampment. Tattered tents dangle from strings and flap in the winter winds. Weary-faced men haul plastic chairs into the sunlight to rest. Militia-style security guards blocked reporters from entering the tent city to interview the protesters.

"It's all wrong," said Mohammed Sayed, a 20-year-old computer student and Hezbollah supporter. "We're all Lebanese, and we're divided. There may be a civil war. Nothing is impossible now."

But back on Martyr's Square, at the edge of Hariri's tomb, the message from leaders who addressed the rally was plain: There is no more room for middle ground.

"We are all writing history today," said Carlos Eddy, a Christian leader. "People say they are neutral, that all politicians are the same so it doesn't matter. This is not right. This is not a soccer match. This is a fight between two ideologies, and our future will be written based on which one prevails."

Political figureheads spoke to the crowds from within a cube of bulletproof glass, only their heads visible. They seemed keen to remind an increasingly cynical public of the outpouring of optimism and fearlessness that came after Hariri's death. Speaker after speaker hammered away at the same points: Lebanon's "martyrs" deserved justice. An international tribunal, the source of bitter fighting between the two camps, should be formed to try the killers.

"We come to tell you, dictator of Damascus, you're a monkey. You're a whale that the seas have rejected," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said, his voice slowly rising into a near-scream. "A creature that's half man, that's feeding on the remains of the people of the south. You liar, you criminal, you killer!"

The murder of Rafik Hariri was a profoundly defining moment for Lebanon and the turning point in its relationship with neighboring Syria. Many people here blamed Damascus for silencing Hariri, a one-time ally who had turned against it. Their rage finally swallowing their fear, Lebanese poured into the streets to demand an end to Syrian domination.

Harangued in Beirut and slapped by the international community, the Syrians were forced to withdraw their soldiers and end overt political tampering a few months later. For the first time since before its 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon was left to cobble out some form of self-rule.

But a failure to come to a consensus about Hezbollah - a tremendously popular and Syria-backed Shiite party with a militia dedicated to fighting Israel - remained a perpetual source of friction. Last summer's war with Israel deepened convictions on both sides: Some were convinced that Hezbollah's weapons were a vital defense that had driven Israel to withdraw; others blamed Hezbollah for dragging the country into war.

Beneath the talk of Hariri, it was really the question of Hezbollah that ran through the capital yesterday, as cutting and divisive as the razor wire.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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