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Rallying around an outrage

Lebanese mark Hariri's assassination and decry Hezbollah. Nearby, the other side protests too.

February 15, 2007|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Two years to the minute after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was blasted to death with a massive car bomb, thousands of his followers lapsed into quiet Wednesday as church bells clanged and a muezzin sang the call to prayer: "God is great."

Mourning a little, demonstrating a lot, they choked city squares in the capital to honor the charismatic Hariri -- and to rekindle the spirit of righteous outrage that followed his assassination, which many in the crowd believe was carried out by Syria.

At a time when Lebanon stands utterly divided against itself, plagued by mysterious bombings and drifting in and out of sectarian street fighting, the commemoration seemed to have more to do with the current crisis than with Lebanon's many slain leaders, Hariri included. Instead of weeping for the dead father, the young crowd screamed and swooned for Saad Hariri, his son and political heir.

"We're here to say that not all Lebanese are on the other side. Not all Lebanese are with Hezbollah," said Joyce Mekari, a 28-year-old hotel manager. "We are liberal, independent, open-minded people, actually. We don't want Syria or Iran to interrupt in our country."

She paused, and grinned.

"We prefer America and France," she said.

Coils of razor wire and rows of troops cordoned downtown Beirut into two cantons. The Hariri supporters came pouring into downtown from along the Mediterranean coast, the Sunni Muslim neighborhoods in the south and from nearby Christian sectors. They caroused along, whooping and honking and screaming the names of their leaders, past shop windows with mannequins in spring dresses and pots of pansies blooming in the sunshine.

On the other side of the razor wire, a demonstration meant to bring down the government dragged through another fruitless day. Two months after Hezbollah and its allies declared the government a tool of the United States and began a round-the-clock sit-in to demand more power, the site resembles a military encampment. Tattered tents dangle from strings and flap in the winter winds. Weary-faced men haul plastic chairs into the sunlight to rest.

Militia-style security guards blocked reporters from entering the tent city to interview the protesters.

"It's all wrong," said Mohammed Sayed, a 20-year-old computer student and Hezbollah supporter. "We're all Lebanese, and we're divided. There may be a civil war. Nothing is impossible now."

But back on Martyrs' Square, at the edge of Hariri's tomb, the message from leaders who addressed the rally was plain: There is no more room for middle ground.

"We are all writing history today," said Carlos Edde, a Christian leader. "People say they are neutral, that all politicians are the same so it doesn't matter. This is not right. This is not a soccer match.... This is a fight between two ideologies, and our future will be written based on which one prevails."

Political figures spoke to the crowds from within a cube of bulletproof glass, only their heads visible. They seemed keen to remind an increasingly cynical public of the outpouring of optimism and fearlessness that came after Hariri's death. Speaker after speaker hammered away at the same points: Lebanon's "martyrs" deserved justice. An international tribunal, the source of bitter fighting between the two camps, should be formed to try the suspected killers.

"We come to tell you, dictator of Damascus, you're a monkey. You're a whale that the seas have rejected," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said, his voice slowly rising into a near-scream. "A creature that's half-man, that's feeding on the remains of the people of the south. You liar, you criminal, you killer!"

The slaying of Hariri in 2005 was a defining moment for Lebanon, and the turning point in its relationship with neighboring Syria. Many Lebanese blamed Damascus for silencing Hariri, a onetime ally who had turned against it. Their rage finally swallowing their fear, they poured into the streets to demand an end to Syrian domination.

Harangued in Beirut and slapped by the international community, Syria withdrew its soldiers and ended its overt political tampering a few months later.

For the first time since before its 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon was left to cobble out some form of self-rule.

But a perpetual source of friction remained: the failure to come to a consensus about Hezbollah, a tremendously popular and Syria-backed Shiite Muslim party with a militia dedicated to fighting Israel.

Last summer's war with Israel deepened convictions on both sides: Some were convinced that Hezbollah's weapons were a vital defense that had driven Israel to withdraw; others blamed the party for dragging the country into war.

Beneath the talk of Hariri, it was really the question of Hezbollah that ran through the capital Wednesday, as cutting and divisive as the razor wire.

megan.stack@latimes.com

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