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Protest Crowds Surge as Beirut Braces for Next Step

In the streets outside the square, some of the chants that followed were angry. "There is no fear! There is no fear! The blood of Shiites is a Kalashnikov."

But more often they were fitting for a carnival, the tone that the protests -- disciplined, organized and peaceful -- have hewn to since they began Dec. 1 with a similar but smaller crowd, followed by a round-the-clock sit-in in scores of tents. As Kassem led the crowd in chants, others down the road danced the traditional debke, and knots of youths beat drums. Women in tight jeans chatted, sometimes shouting over martial music blared from speakers, as Shiite clerics in robes passed by.

"Beirut is free!" some chanted.

"I want to send a small message," said Mohammed Ali Ghandour, a 17-year-old who has attended the protests five of the past 10 days. "The government doesn't respect us. They're not taking care of us. They say they do, but they don't."

Ghandour held a poster that read, "As with victory, change is coming, coming, coming."

"What's happening, it's us or them. And whoever wins receives the country. All of it," he said. "This is Lebanon."

Through the crisis, followers in the two camps have split into views that almost never intersect. The speeches of leaders like Nasrallah are echoed almost immediately in the streets. Siniora's contention that the protests amount to a coup d'etat is mentioned in almost every conversation with Hezbollah's opponents. After Nasrallah accused the government of complicity in Israel's waging war this summer, protester after protester mentioned it in interviews Sunday. The government, many claimed, was at best under the sway of U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, at worst staffed by traitors.

"In the trash can of history, the government of Feltman," one sign read.

"The government walks as the Americans tell it to walk. It does what Feltman asks it to do," said Hussein Awadeh, a 17-year-old from the largely Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut. "Is it possible we'd accept a government like that?"

Aoun, who entered into an alliance with Hezbollah last year, said the demonstration Sunday would mark the last mass protest. Like Hezbollah, he was unclear about what might follow. Both he and Nasrallah have said they might demand a transitional government that would pave the way for early elections, but constitutionally, Hezbollah and its allies don't have the numbers in parliament to do so. Some here have read the call as a veiled threat of a coup, but so far, the military has strived to stay neutral.

"In the next few days, we expect to change the status quo," Aoun said.

Government officials, at least publicly, have struck a confident tone. So far, they say they have yet to lose anything in the confrontation, and Siniora has repeatedly ruled out resigning, while, like Nasrallah, leaving the door open for negotiations.

"No one ever had any doubt about Hezbollah's capacity to bring huge crowds to the street," said Wael Abou Faour, a parliament member and supporter of Siniora. But, he added, "they have reached a dead horizon."

He said Siniora planned to offer a compromise this week, though it would not diverge far from previous positions. Most talks have revolved around Hezbollah and its allies receiving just short of a third of the cabinet, with independents holding one or two posts. Hezbollah and its allies have pushed for just over a third, a number that would allow them to force the cabinet's resignation.

Special correspondents Alia Ibrahim and Lynn Maalouf contributed to this report.


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