BEIRUT, March 14 -- Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese rallied at the grave of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on Monday to mark the one-month anniversary of his assassination and to intensify pressure on Syria to immediately withdraw its troops from a country that appears split into two rival political camps.
The demonstration covered wind-swept Martyrs' Square and stretched for blocks into side streets, likely surpassing the size of the rally organized last week in Beirut by Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement at the forefront of support for Syria's three-decade presence here.
Demonstrators carry a huge Lebanese flag through Beirut to dramatize their demand for Syria's withdrawal.
(Damir Sagolj -- Reuters)
Beirut Protests: In what appears to be the largest turnout to date, hundreds of thousands in Lebanon march against Syria's influence.
In a crowd that Lebanese police officials estimated at close to 1 million people, some demonstrators waved placards that read "100 percent Lebanese," a direct challenge to Syria's supporters here and the delicate balance among Lebanon's sectarian parties that has prevailed since the country's civil war ended more than 15 years ago.
"The Lebanese people now for the first time dare to say what they think, and the truth of what we have been through is now very clear," said Tony Abou Rizk, 45, a real estate agent and Greek Orthodox Christian. "That was never the real Lebanon. This is the real Lebanon."
Women with Louis Vuitton backpacks chanted anti-Syrian slogans next to college students in Che Guevara T-shirts, and men in pinstriped suits draped themselves with lengths of red-and-white cloth, the colors of the Lebanese flag. Some demonstrators carried signs that read "Thank You, George W. Bush," referring to calls by the United States for Syria to pull out and Hezbollah to withdraw.
Pleased by the turnout, opposition leaders pledged to continue the round-the-clock graveside vigil and weekly rallies despite warnings from Lebanese security forces that no more large-scale protests would be permitted.
The opposition is demanding withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents before parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring, the dismissal of the heads of Lebanese security agencies and the convening of an independent international investigation into Hariri's assassination, which many here blame on Syrian intelligence agencies.
In a speech to the crowd, Bahiya Hariri, a member of parliament from the city of Sidon, addressed her slain elder brother: "Your family and all the Lebanese will keep your history alive. We came to vow before you that we will not let anyone hurt our Lebanon, the Lebanon you wanted, and we will proceed with the path you drew for us."
Anger over Hariri's slaying has united former rivals among Lebanon's Christian, Sunni Muslim and Druze parties in opposition to Syria and its supporters in the Lebanese government and in the country's Shiite community. And both camps claim to represent the real Lebanon.
Though the government has not conducted a census since 1957, out of fear of stirring up sectarian tensions in a country with more than a dozen religious groups, Shiites are believed to make up a plurality of the population.
The two large pro-Syrian parties supported by the vast majority of Lebanese Shiites are staging massive demonstrations of their own across the country. Several hundred thousand rallied Sunday in Nabatiyah, in Hezbollah's heartland near the southern frontier with Israel, and last week's rally in Beirut drew at least a half-million people.
Many opposition members contended Monday that Hezbollah's Beirut rally was populated mostly by Syrian intelligence agents and poor Shiites from the south. "They didn't come by their free will," said Charles Kanaan, 23, a systems engineer and Maronite Christian from Beirut. "And they weren't 100 percent Lebanese. This is free will. This is the real Lebanon."
In an apparent response, Hezbollah's satellite channel, al-Manar, focused its coverage of Monday's rally on the maids from South Asian countries who attended with their employers.
The back-and-forth demonstrations have resulted in a political stalemate now hampering the formation of a new government to steer the country through the elections. Prime Minister Omar Karami, who resigned under public pressure a week after Hariri's assassination only to be reappointed 10 days later, planned to begin consultations Monday on his new cabinet. Those meetings were postponed because of the demonstration.
The throngs that turned out under a nearly cloudless sky suggested that the opposition alliance, which now controls roughly one-third of parliament, could gain enough ground in the voting to bring in a government less favorable to Syria. But parliament has yet to set the date and districts for the elections, which Lebanese opposition leaders fear could be undermined if Syrian troops and intelligence agencies remain in the country through the spring.
Syrian and Lebanese officials are scheduled to meet April 7 to finalize a timeline for the full withdrawal of Syria's troops and intelligence agents, who have begun vacating a few buildings they use as headquarters in northern Lebanon.
"What we want to see now is a new parliament, a young parliament," said Fadi Chebli, 24, a systems engineer and Maronite Christian who attended the demonstration. "We want to see more people like us in there."
As the demonstration swirled around her, Maya Boustani, an archaeologist raised in the mountains of eastern Lebanon, assessed the uneven progress of her country's anti-Syrian opposition.
"Maybe we've made a first step," said Boustani, 38, a rare Shiite Muslim in the mass of opposition demonstrators. "There may be many more to take. Maybe these won't be taken in the streets like today, but we must continue."