Hezbollah rally against U.S.-backed government
Sam F. Ghattas, Associated Press
1 December 2006
BEIRUT -- Hundreds of thousands of protesters from the militant Hezbollah movement and its pro-Syrian allies descended on downtown Beirut on Friday in a peaceful but noisy protest to force the resignation of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who was holed up in his office ringed by hundreds of police and combat troops.
Hizbullah supporters at the anti-government demonstration in Beirut.
The protesters created a sea of Lebanese flags that blanketed the downtown area and spilled onto surrounding streets. Many chanted slogans demanding that Saniora quit amid the deafening sound ofHezbollah's revolutionary and nationalist songs.
The pro-Syria and Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies are struggling to obtain veto-wielding power in the country's cabinet - a demand Saniora has rejected.
The guerrilla group hopes the mass demonstration, which police estimated at 800,000 but Hezbollahclaimed was larger, will generate enough popular pressure to further paralyze Saniora's government, forcing it to step down.
He who has his people behind him does not need barbed wire.
Hezbollah and its allies also called for an open-ended protest, and supporters plan to set up camp around the clock in tents erected on a road outside Saniora's office and in a downtown square.
"I wish that the prime minister and his ministers were among us today, not hiding behind barbed wire and army armoured carriers," Michel Aoun, a Christian leader and Hezbollah ally, told the crowd.
"He who has his people behind him does not need barbed wire."
Hezbollah has tried to depict the protest as rallying all Lebanese, not just its supporters. It urged demonstrators to wave only the red and white Lebanese flag with its green cedar tree - a stark contrast to past rallies by the group, which saw huge numbers of yellow Hezbollah flags that display a fist and Kalashnikov rifle.
Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nassrallah, who has not made a public appearance since a September rally for the militant group, could not be seen Friday.
Inside the prime minister's building, Saniora went about his schedule in what appeared to be a tactic to ignore the throngs outside.
A day earlier, a defiant Saniora vowed his government would not fall but warned that "Lebanon's independence is threatened and its democratic system is in danger."
Heavily armed soldiers and police closed all roads leading to Saniora's sprawling headquarters that overlooked the massive rally.
Barbed wire and other barricades were placed around the stone-walled building to prevent any protests from spilling over during what some newspapers have billed as the "great showdown" between the government and the opposition.
Hezbollah's security men also formed two lines between the protesters and the security forces to prevent clashes.
Saniora supporters accuse Syria of being behind Hezbollah's campaign, trying to regain its lost influence in its smaller neighbour.
Hezbollah and its allies, in turn, say the country has fallen under U.S. domination and that they have lost their rightful portion of power.
The group's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassim, made it clear on Friday that the fight was against "American tutelage" and said the protest action will continue until the government falls.
The United States is determined to see Saniora kept in power in its attempts to rein in Syria and its ally, regional powerhouse Iran. U.S. President George W. Bush warned earlier this week that the two countries were trying to destabilize Lebanon.
Lebanon has witnessed a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures over the past two years, including a prominent Christian government minister gunned down last week and former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a February 2005 bomb blast.
The battle is a fallout from the summer war between Hezbollah and Israel that ravaged parts of Lebanon. The guerrilla force's strong resistance against Israel sent its support among Shiites soaring, emboldening it to grab more political power and make alliances with some Christians. Hezbollah also feels Saniora did not do enough tosupport it during the fight.
Pro-government groups, in turn, resent Hezbollah for sparking the fight by snatching two Israeli soldiers, dragging Lebanon into war with Israel.
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