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Lebanese Premier Resigns As Street Protest Heats Up

20,000 Gather to Demand Syrian Withdrawal

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page A01

BEIRUT, Feb. 28 -- Lebanon's prime minister, Omar Karami, resigned Monday after hours of angry street demonstrations against his government and its chief supporter, Syria. The surprise announcement was the most dramatic sign yet of the government's instability following the assassination two weeks ago of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister who had become an increasingly strident voice against Syria's presence here.

Karami's dramatic announcement, which clears the way for a caretaker government until spring elections, concluded the first meeting of parliament since Hariri's Feb. 14 death in a bomb blast. Coming just after nightfall on a day when about 20,000 demonstrators filled nearby Martyrs' Square to demand Syria's immediate withdrawal from Lebanon and the government's resignation, the news was welcomed as an early victory for the uncertain revolution that has begun on the streets of this seaside capital.

Protesters carry Lebanese flags and a poster of slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri during the demonstration in downtown Beirut. (Jamal Saidi -- Reuters)

_____From Beirut_____
Photo Gallery: Protesters react to the news that Lebanese Premier Omar Karami resigned.
Video: Post's Wilson From Beirut
Video From the Parliament

The parliamentary session was carried live over loudspeakers placed around the square, awash in the red-and-white of Lebanese flags and banners, including one imploring Syria to "Leave Us In Peace, Not in Pieces." Throughout the long, bitter debate, opposition legislators draped red-and-white cloth around their necks in a sign of solidarity with the mostly middle-class demonstrators gathered less than a half-mile from parliament. The crowd erupted in cheers and chants on word of Karami's resignation.

"It shouldn't have taken something like this to bring us out here, but sometimes it takes just such a turning point," said Pascal Attalah, 34, a financial consultant. Attalah and a group of friends, who like thousands of others defied a government ban and generally porous army barricades to demonstrate, began a sit-in Sunday night that they said would last for the duration of Lebanon's uprising. They munched through a bag of croissants and sipped instant coffee inside a domed blue tent where they are making their stand.

"What we learned when he was killed is there is no ceiling here anymore," Attalah said. "If they can kill Hariri, no one is safe."

The Lebanese have embarked on a peaceful uprising to remove their staggering democracy from Syria's influence. The movement, a largely improvised effort being planned by various party leaders and political science professors, is taking cues from the success of Ukraine's Orange Revolution last year and draws inspiration from recent signs that democratic change may be taking hold in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other traditionally autocratic strongholds of the Middle East.

Gone are the jittery days of the Lebanese warlords, although some of them have been reincarnated as statesmen for the fight unfolding now. Instead, the cell-phone generation has taken to the streets in the shadows of buildings pocked with bullet holes, demanding that Syria remove its 15,000 troops from Lebanon, dismantle its pervasive intelligence apparatus and allow key parliamentary elections to proceed as planned.

In announcing his resignation, Karami, who was named prime minister after Hariri's resignation last October, said, "I am keen that the government not stand as an obstacle for those who want good for this country." His cabinet will stay in place as a caretaker government until President Emile Lahoud, whose term was extended last year under pressure from Syria, names a new prime minister after consulting with parliament.

Under Lebanon's post-civil war constitution, the prime minister has power nearly equal to that of the president and the parliamentary speaker. Each office is held by the leader of one of Lebanon's three largest religious groups.

Lebanon's opposition movement is made up of mostly middle-to-upper-income Lebanese and the plurality is Christian, joined by large contingents of Druze and Sunni Muslims, according to interviews with participants and political analysts. The rebellion, which took shape in the days following the death of Hariri and 16 others in the blast, has managed to surmount most of the religious and partisan lines that fueled the long years of war that ended in 1990.

But those parties that have not joined the opposition could threaten both the movement's success and the peaceful way it has unfolded. Lebanon's main Shiite parties have remained on the sidelines, including the armed political movement Hezbollah, after their leaders expressed support for the pro-Syrian government. The absence of a major Shiite element within the opposition deprives the movement of thousands of potential activists, highly organized party structures and a viable claim to be truly representative of the country's various religious groups.

Although the rage that followed Hariri's murder continues to motivate thousands of Lebanese, the movement faces long odds because of the peculiar nature of its opponent, a national government dominated by the country next door. The arrangement grew out of the 1989 peace accord that ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war, an agreement widely ignored in many areas, including the stipulation that Syrian troops withdraw to the eastern Bekaa Valley within two years.

The U.N. Security Council, pushed by the United States and France, is demanding a full withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon as well as the disarmament of Hezbollah, which operates with Syria's support along the southern border with Israel. But Syria's interests here, including the use of Lebanon as leverage in negotiations with Israel and its deep reach into a vibrant economy that employs roughly 500,000 Syrians, make a complete withdrawal unlikely.

"This is really an unusual case of occupation," said Farid El-Khazen, chairman of the political studies department at American University of Beirut, who is working with the opposition. "You are targeting a government, but the government has no ability to make any decisions, especially now. The decision-making power is in Syria, so the Syrians are trying to turn this into a case of conflict between Lebanese. It is what they have always done."

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