Lebanese Throngs Want Leaders to Resign

The Associated Press
Friday, December 1, 2006; 6:15 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese heeded Hezbollah's call Friday, flooding downtown Beirut to pressure the U.S.-supported government to resign. But Prime Minister Fuad Saniora showed no signs of backing down in a confrontation that could tear apart the country.

The protesters raised a deafening noise of chants and revolutionary and nationalist songs just outside the main government offices. Barbed wire and armored vehicles separated the demonstrators from the buildings where Saniora and some of his ministers were holed up.

"Pack your bags Fuad, and leave us and the country in peace," many shouted.

The loud but peaceful rally, which took on a carnival-like atmosphere in bright autumn sunshine, was far larger than last week's pro-government demonstration that followed the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. Friday's crowd was estimated at between 800,000 and a million people, who formed a sea of red-and-white Lebanese flags with the green cedar emblem.

The protest was the opening volley in the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah's campaign of open-ended demonstrations. The event could be a watershed for the future of Lebanese politics, torn between anti-Syrian politicians who control the government and pro-Syrian forces led by Hezbollah.

Hezbollah and its allies demand a third of the seats in Saniora's Cabinet _ enough to veto its decisions _ and have vowed to continue their campaign until the government falls. They cite Lebanon's constitution, which says the Cabinet is supposed to represent all communities in the country.

Saniora and his supporters call the campaign a coup attempt led by neighboring Syria and its ally Iran, a stance echoed by Washington. Hezbollah and its allies contend the real fight is against American influence, saying the United States now dominates Lebanon in the interests of Israel.

Lebanon is one of a number of areas in the Middle East where the United States and Iran are vying for influence.

"We do remain very concerned that Hezbollah and its allies, with support from Syria and the Iranian government, are continuing to work to destabilize Lebanon," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said. "The demonstrations are aimed at toppling Lebanon's legitimate and democratically elected government."

John Bolton, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said the Hezbollah demonstration was "part of the Iran-Syria-inspired coup d'etat."

Most protesters left after the rally ended in the evening but several thousand set up tents for an open-ended sit-in outside Saniora's offices, blaring slogans through loudspeakers. Inside his besieged offices, Saniora went about his schedule in what appeared to be a tactic to ignore the demonstration; he took calls of support from the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Lebanon now faces a dangerous, protracted battle of nerves that could last for days and turn violent. Saniora and his allies appear determined to hunker down until Hezbollah abandons its protests. The pro-Syrian camp aims to paralyze the country until Saniora is forced to resign and form a new government.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Associated Press