Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Huge Pro-Syrian Protest Fills Square
and Streets in Beirut

Today's crowds vastly outnumbered
those at recent rallies demanding that Syrian
forces leave Lebanon.

“Hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian protesters poured into a central Beirut square this afternoon in a demonstration called for by the militant group Hezbollah that vastly outnumbered recent rallies demanding that Syrian forces leave Lebanon.

Thousands in the vast crowds waved Lebanese flags, as called for by the head of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who made a surprise appearance and reiterated his opposition to a United Nations resolution demanding an immediate pullout by Syria and Hezbollah's disarmament .

Others held up banners proclaiming in English, "Thanks to Syria" and "No to Foreign Interference," as well as pictures of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, his ally, President Émile Lahoud of Lebanon, and Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

It was Mr. Hariri's assassination on Feb. 14, with many in the opposition accusing the Syrians of being responsible for the killing, that set off huge opposition protests in Beirut, leading to today's protest.

… enthusiastic, cheering crowds filled the square in central Beirut and spilled over into streets to the north and the south.

Loudspeakers blared out endlessly over a public address system, carrying the message that Syrian troops should maintain a presence in Lebanon. Calls for no foreign intervention referred to the United States and Israel.

Hezbollah guards handled security, and dogs sniffed for bombs. Organizers handed out … a sea of Lebanese flags and directed men and women to separate sections of the square.

This is just a few blocks from another downtown square where opposition protesters have been staging protests for days, demanding that Syria withdraw the 14,000 troops it maintains in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, has been mobilizing its followers from across the country for the protest, also designed to denounce a United Nations resolution that, in addition to its demand for Syrian withdrawal, called for dismantling militias - a point Hezbollah sees as aimed at its military wing.”

In the outlying heavily Shiite regions of the Bekaa Valley and the south, loudspeakers urged followers to travel to Beirut for the protest.

Hezbollah, founded by Iran and backed by Syria, has emerged as a key element during the latest political instability.

The eclectic opposition - composed of Christian, Druse and Sunni Muslim politicians, although notably lacking in Shiite Muslims - believes that it has already scored precious points against Syria and is eager to press its advantage before parliamentary elections, to be held in May.

The Monday announcement increases the likelihood that Syrian troops will still be in the country when Lebanese go to the polls.

But the opposition protesters became emboldened by the resignation last week of the pro-Syrian government of Prime Minister Omar Karami, who quit in the face of street demonstrations. The opposition, which has camped out on Beirut's main square for three weeks, is already gearing up for another rally next Monday.

con·cept: Huge Pro-Syrian Protest Fills Square and Streets in Beirut