By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 9:04 PM
TRIPOLI, LEBANON - Sunni Arabs took to the streets of Lebanon on Tuesday to protest the country's new prime minister and the growing influence of Hezbollah, the Shiite armed movement.
The crowds of Sunnis in Beirut and this northern city numbered just a few thousand. But the protesters' bitter rhetoric suggested that the ongoing political crisis here is hardening sectarian divisions and could lead to large-scale civil unrest.
The constitution in this sharply divided country requires that the prime minister be a Sunni. But Najib Mikati, the Sunni billionaire who took over that position Tuesday, did so with the support of Hezbollah, prompting accusations that he had betrayed his own people.
His appointment indicated an important shift in power in Lebanon, where the influence of the United States and its Sunni Arab allies in the region is waning, while that of Syria and Iran - which support Hezbollah - is growing.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States hopes that Lebanon's government will represent its people, and not outside forces.
And State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley added, "The make-up of Lebanon's government is a Lebanese decision, but this decision should not be reached through coercion, intimidation, and threats of violence. Unfortunately, Hezbollah, backed by Syria, engaged in all three in pursuit of its political goals."
The protests in Beirut and Tripoli quickly turned violent as people burned tires in the streets and threw rocks at vehicles and passersby, cursing what they considered the Shiite consolidation of power in Lebanon. They attacked journalists and torched a news van, prompting the Lebanese Army in some parts of Beirut to use tear gas to contain the crowds.
"We are all named Sunni today," one demonstrator, his face covered in a scarf, said when asked to identify himself. Tires and garbage burned behind him, with orange flames shooting in the sky.
The government of Saad Hariri collapsed two weeks ago when Hezbollah and its allies pulled out of his cabinet to protest the then-prime minister's refusal to renounce a controversial U.N. tribunal investigating the assassination of his father and 22 others in 2005. Sealed indictments issued last week are believed to accuse some members of Hezbollah. The group, the most powerful military force in the country, denies the allegations and calls the tribunal an American and Israeli tool to attack it.
This week, Hezbollah garnered enough support in parliament to oust Hariri from power, and Mikati -former premier who is known as a neutral figure - won the backing of a parliamentary majority and became prime minister.
On Tuesday, Mikati promised to work for a national unity government that represented all people in this mixed nation of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druze. He rejected attempts to cast him as Hezbollah's prime minister and pledged to reach out to Hariri.
"There should be no party that doesn't want to take part in this kind of government," he said. "I will always stay moderate - in the middle. I call for calm."
But in this northern port city, Mikati's home town, Hariri supporters railed against Iranian influence in Lebanon and called Mikati, who was once allied with Hariri, a traitor.
Lawmakers close to Hariri likened Mikati's appointment to a coup. Demonstrators cursed the head of Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah, who is revered in much of the Shiite community, and chanted for Mikati to get out.
Khalid Dhaher, a Sunni lawmaker, called the prime minister's seat "the throne of the Sunni people" and issued what he called "an open message to the Islamic world and the Arab world that Lebanon is in danger."
Demonstrators hung from rooftops and filled the traffic square in the center of the city. Nearby, men gathered and screamed at a rooftop cameraman from a television channel generally sympathetic to Hezbollah. They tried to rush the building, but the army stopped them.
One demonstrator warned that the Sunni community would do anything to bring back Hariri. He vowed to fight what he views as a Hezbollah-controlled government that he and other protesters think would essentially be controlled by Iran; others said that if Lebanese Shiites want Iranian rule, they should go to Iran.
"If Iran wants to fight us, then we have no choice but [to join] al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden," said Abeed Daknash, a demonstrator in Tripoli, a city known for Sunni religious extremism. "Saad Hariri or al-Qaeda," he warned.
He also asked for U.S. help in arming those who are willing to fight.
"Why is Iran supporting Hezbollah with guns and everything they need," he said. "If they are against the Iranian project the U.S. should support us."
Officials close to Mikati said that he is not concerned about the protests and that they do not represent the Sunni community as a whole.
As the demonstrations grew out of control, Hariri called for calm from his supporters.
"You are the first line of defense - I will be with you in good or bad - and together we will protect and defend Lebanon," he said, standing in front of a portrait of his father. "We are today an angry people, but we are responsible for coexistence and civil peace."
But, for the first time since the crisis began, Hezbollah's leader broke his calm demeanor. During a televised address Tuesday afternoon, Nasrallah slammed Hariri and his March 14 alliance for using sectarian rhetoric and accused the United States of pitting one political coalition against another.
"Saying that Mikati is Hezbollah's candidate is a sectarian provocation," Nasrallah said. "The next prime minister will not be Hezbollah's, nor will the next cabinet. This is only said to provoke [foreign powers] against Lebanon, [including] the U.S. and Israel."
He added: "It is up to the Lebanese. If [we] do not seek to form a national unity cabinet, where are [we] taking the country?"
Special correspondent Moe Ali Nayel contributed to this report.