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With a Rare Display of Unity, Lebanese Bury Former Premier

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page A20

BEIRUT, Feb. 16 -- Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese marched through the streets of the capital Wednesday to the edge of Martyrs Square, where former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was buried in a raucous ceremony that reflected uncharacteristic unity and deep anger toward those they blame for his assassination: the governments of Lebanon and Syria.

Carrying banners that read "Syria Out" and "Hey Syria -- Who's Next?" throngs of Lebanese chanted and sobbed as Hariri's casket was borne by ambulance through miles of empty streets, then on shoulders into the enormous al-Amine Mosque. The banners of political parties that were once fierce rivals bounced along together in the flow of people.

A banner expresses a common sentiment among mourners at the funeral of Rafiq Hariri, who was killed Monday. (Jamal Saidi -- Reuters)

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Nora Boustany on the political situation in Lebanon.
_____From Beirut_____
Photo Gallery: Thousands marched through Beirut to mourn the loss of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Video: Hariri's funeral becomes an anti-Syria rally in the streets of Beirut.
Video: Scene from downtown Beirut immediately following the blast.

The signs of religious and political unity in a country still haunted by its 15-year sectarian war were evident in almost every aspect of the day's activities. The bells of St. George Cathedral, a Maronite Christian church next to the mosque, tolled for hours. No one could remember such a tribute after the death of a Sunni Muslim, Hariri's religious affiliation.

"The Syrians made all of this possible," said Mardiros Nigolian, 71, an Armenian Christian who joined the gathering outside the mosque to pay his respects. "What was said in low voices for months is now being said at a very high volume."

Syria maintains 15,000 troops in Lebanon, a legacy from the earliest days of this country's 1975-90 civil war, and exerted its decisive political influence here last year to assure the term of President Emile Lahoud would be extended. Many Lebanese have blamed Syria and its allies in the Lebanese security services for Hariri's death Monday in an apparent suicide bombing, and the United States recalled its ambassador to Damascus on Tuesday for consultations to express its outrage over the slaying.

Syria has denied any involvement in the killing of Hariri, who in recent months had emerged as an important opponent of Syrian influence here.

France, which administered Lebanon after World War I and maintains a strong cultural legacy here, has joined the Lebanese political opposition in calling for an international investigation to determine who was responsible for the attack, which killed 13 other people and wounded more than 100.

President Jacques Chirac, a friend of Hariri's, reiterated that demand Wednesday when he arrived for the funeral.

Hariri's assassination has brought together Lebanon's famously antagonistic political factions in a way no other event has since the end of its civil war. Hariri, a self-made billionaire who headed an important bloc in parliament increasingly associated with the opposition, represented for many Lebanese a rare sense of moderation and economic progress.

Regardless of whether Syria is found to be involved, Hariri's death has galvanized the opposition at a time when the country is preparing for parliamentary elections that could begin as early as April. Hariri, 60, was believed to have been planning a comeback as prime minister and had moved closer to the collection of Christian, Druze and other sectarian parties that largely form the opposition to the Lebanese government, now run by men with strong loyalties to Syria.

"When you lose your country, how do you feel?" Talal Salim, 51, who owns an electronics store in downtown Beirut, said as he watched the funeral procession. "To calm the people now, this government must do something very big to make sure we live in freedom. But we know they take their orders from outside the country."

Although passion and political divisions run deep here, there is evidence to suggest that the kind of fighting that killed roughly 150,000 Lebanese during the civil war will not return. The war was fueled by regional powers -- including Israel, Iran and Syria -- that supplied arms and money to proxy armies. Today, few countries appear ready to back factions in the same way.

But Lebanese officials have warned in recent days that the political climate resembles the time preceding the civil war. Syria's divisive role could have an effect similar to that of the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose presence in Beirut helped spark the sectarian strife in 1975, according to a number of Lebanese politicians and others who lived through the violence.

"There is a regional power here that is working against peace and stability," Ali, 58, who was born in Beirut and declined to give his last name out of fear of reprisal, said as he waited for the funeral to begin. "Any development in our country they see as a threat to their power here. So they seek to stop it. And he [Hariri] was for that development."

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