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Lebanese Pull Down Dominant Images

People Flock to Beirut Coastal Road As Billboard of Assads Is Dismantled

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A16

BEIRUT, March 15 -- Buzzing along the Corniche on his way to a 1:30 p.m. meeting, Elias Azzam spotted the streetside commotion and swerved his Jeep Cherokee to the curb. It couldn't be, he thought, not after so many years. But it was. A crane was pulling down the enormous billboard that featured smiling portraits of Syria's father-and-son presidents on opposite sides.

Within minutes, a jubilant crowd of a few dozen people began swirling around workers as they dismantled perhaps the most abrasive everyday reminder of Syria's grip on its smaller neighbor. Azzam, dressed in a black pinstriped suit and stylish tie, parallel parked and grabbed a red-and-white Lebanese flag given to him by the on-the-spot organizers of the celebration.

Elias Azzam, left, skipped a meeting Tuesday to join an impromptu celebration along Beirut's waterfront as portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his father were taken down. (Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)

"I'm skipping the meeting," Azzam, 27, an assistant director of marketing for a major Lebanese commercial bank, said as he recounted the surprise he felt when he stumbled on the scene. "This is for a cause."

Lebanon's improvisational uprising against three decades of Syrian military presence has turned buttoned-down bankers such as Azzam into sidewalk guerrillas, and on Tuesday the anti-Syrian opposition was feeling as potent as ever following a massive rally in Beirut the previous day. Swept up in what they believe is a historic moment for their country, many in Beirut have begun actively hounding the Syrians and the symbols of their influence from the city.

The billboard featured a depiction of Syrian President Bashar Assad on one side, and one of his late father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, on the other. An inscription scrawled across the bottom edge described it as a gift from the Lebanese people in tribute to the Syrian leaders. But for many of the thousands of drivers who passed the billboard every day, the images stood as a reminder of Syria's vigilant presence and of their powerlessness against it. The Feb. 14 bombing that killed former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a crime many here blame on Syria's intelligence agencies, occurred three miles away, on the same seaside stretch of road.

The larger-than-life images, perched atop a bluff overlooking a broad beach, had watched over some of the choicest real estate in Beirut. The sand sweeps into a rocky point where luxury yachts nestle in a small marina, easily within view of the portraits. Only a slate-gray space remained on the billboard Tuesday after the crews finished the work, supervised by Lebanon's internal security forces. But just a block away, up a small rise, was another portrait of Hafez Assad gazing down on passersby. The crowd said it was the next target.

The neighborhood is thick with such celebrations of Syria's authority. The main headquarters of Syria's intelligence services in Beirut is only a few blocks from the back-to-back portraits. Inside the complex of concrete apartment buildings Tuesday, men were loading several trucks with furniture. The Bush administration has demanded that Syrian intelligence agents leave Lebanon along with the 10,000 remaining soldiers now concentrated in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

"It drives me out of my mind," said Mona Haswainy, 55, a high school French teacher.

Like Azzam, Haswainy was cruising along the Corniche when she passed the suddenly faceless billboard and swung her Citroen to the curb. Although the work had begun less than an hour before, a crowd had gathered as the news traveled by cell phone and text message -- the advertising medium of choice among Lebanon's mostly middle- and upper-class insurgents -- that Assad was coming down.

"This is instinctive now," Haswainy said in a gravelly voice as she waved a Lebanese flag at passing cars. "What we are doing now is making clear to everyone, here and outside, that we don't want the pictures of any foreigners, especially Syrian foreigners, in our country."

The gathering never amounted to more than about 70 people at a time. But the speed with which the crowd coalesced was a testament to the opposition's growing network and the passion that has transformed students, business owners, academics and others into Syria's most ardent adversaries.

The group had the feel of a rapid-response guerrilla force but the trappings of a Chevy Chase car pool. Mercedes, Land Rovers, Jeeps and BMWs double-parked along the Corniche, with their drivers quickly assembling on the sidewalk to urge other cars to follow suit.

"Join us! Join us!" women in designer sunglasses shouted.

Of those who did not, many honked horns in support. At one point, a large bus draped with Lebanese flags entered an adjacent intersection. It was apparently bound for the U.S. Embassy, where hundreds of pro-Syrian demonstrators marched Tuesday to demand the departure of the American ambassador.

"Join us, join us," several women shouted. But those peering from the bus's open windows chanted and waved before speeding off.

As the crowd swelled, several cars pulled up to outfit the impromptu demonstrators. After reaching into boxes in the trunks of cars, several men moved through the crowd passing out photos of Hariri, now considered by the Lebanese opposition as a martyr to their cause. Others distributed black placards bearing the words, in Arabic, "The Truth," a reference to opposition demands that an international investigation be conducted into Hariri's death.

"We don't want any army in Lebanon but the Lebanese army," the crowd chanted. "We don't want a parliament that is Syria's concierge."

Zeina Mansour, 26, watched the crowd grow and sway. A half-hour earlier, she said, she had been sitting at her home in West Beirut watching newscasters discuss efforts by the newly reinstated pro-Syrian prime minister, Omar Karami, to form a new government. Her phone rang. It was her mother with word that the portrait was coming down.

"She was very, very excited," said Mansour, who passed the billboard every day traveling from her house in the Shoueifat neighborhood to Lebanese University, from which she recently graduated with a journalism degree. "I told her to get more people."

She jumped into her car and headed toward the sea, glassy on a glittering winter day.

"I always wanted to knock this down," Mansour said with a smile.

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