Hezbollah Widens Anti-Government Campaign

Lebanese flash the symbol of Hezbollah's Christian allies during a protest against tax increases and other policies outside a Finance Ministry office.
Lebanese flash the symbol of Hezbollah's Christian allies during a protest against tax increases and other policies outside a Finance Ministry office. (By Sergey Ponomarev -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

BEIRUT, Jan. 9 -- Hezbollah and its allies widened their campaign Tuesday to force the Lebanese government's resignation, backing what they vowed would be a series of daily protests scattered across the capital.

Tuesday's gathering of hundreds of flag-waving protesters outside a Finance Ministry office was a sedate affair compared with the convergence of hundreds of thousands twice last month in Beirut's downtown, where demonstrators continue a round-the-clock vigil in hundreds of tents near the barricaded government headquarters.

The demonstration was more symbolic than dramatic, marking the beginning of what officials of the Shiite Muslim group and its leftist and Christian allies have long warned is a second stage of their efforts to form a new government and convene early parliamentary elections.

"The message is sent, and this is what matters to us," said Amin Sherri, a Hezbollah lawmaker.

The struggle between Hezbollah and its allies and the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has plunged Lebanon into one of its worst political crises since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. It may determine which group is ascendant in Lebanese politics: the alliance around Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, or a government coalition, supported by the United States.

Beyond Lebanon, the crisis intersects with tension across the region, as the United States and Iran vie for influence and concerns grow over a Shiite-Sunni conflict becoming ever more pronounced in Iraq.

But unlike in December, when the crisis often had an hour-to-hour urgency, the confrontation has assumed a veneer of normalcy in its second month. Each side has escalated -- Hezbollah with its support for Tuesday's protest led by Lebanese unions, the government by pressing ahead with policy changes over the opposition's objections -- but both appear prepared for a long wait. For their part, Hezbollah officials have stressed that any escalation will remain nonviolent and not break any laws.

So far, both sides can claim victories. The government has refused to resign. But by paralyzing the government, Hezbollah has stanched what it saw as growing U.S. influence here and delayed the convening of an international court to try suspects in the 2005 slaying of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, an assassination that government supporters blame on Syria.

"It is a mixed bag," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "But what's interesting is that it's a mixed bag that might have reached an unexpected status quo."

"My suspicion or sense is that we're in kind of a holding pattern," he added.

The protest convened along a usually busy intersection, drawing almost as many police officers and soldiers as demonstrators. Organized by the General Labor Confederation, a coalition of unions, the protesters railed against tax increases, privatization and other policies the government has announced ahead of a conference in Paris this month to solicit international aid for Lebanon. "No to the imposition of new taxes and fees," one placard read. "Siniora is responsible for impoverishing Lebanon," another said.

"We're here because there's no work, there are no jobs in the country," said Ali Tfaili, a 29-year-old protester.

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