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Lebanese remember Rafik Hariri with huge rally

Hundreds of thousands crowd the streets of Beirut on the fourth anniversary of the former prime minister's assassination. Speakers urge Lebanese to reject Hezbollah-led camp in June's elections.

February 15, 2009|Raed Rafei

BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets of Beirut on Saturday to remember slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The rally on the fourth anniversary of the Sunni leader's assassination came as Lebanese politicians launched campaigns for crucial parliamentary elections, which will pit the nation's Western-backed coalition against the Hezbollah-led camp supported by Iran and Syria.

Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian leaders called on voters to head en masse to the polls in June, telling the crowds that the election would boil down to a decision between an impartial and sovereign country and a state mired in conflict with neighboring Israel and dominated by regional powers.

The June 7 election "is a crossroads in the life of the democratic Lebanon," said Saad Hariri, head of the parliamentary majority and son of the leader, who was killed Feb. 14, 2005, by a bomb in central Beirut.

The elections "are an occasion to raise the voice for a free, independent and capable state," he said to a cheering, flag-waving crowd.

Hezbollah and its allies accuse the Hariri camp of sacrificing the Arab and Palestinian causes and serving the interests of the United States and Israel.

The rally comes two weeks before the official inauguration of an international tribunal to try the suspects in Hariri's killing. Syria was widely blamed for the crime and for a series of assassinations of political figures critical of its government. Syria denies any involvement.

"We say it openly: There is no compromise on the international tribunal and justice," said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the main figures of the anti-Syrian bloc.

He also called for the disarming of Hezbollah, which says it needs to maintain a massive arsenal of weapons as a deterrent against what it describes as Israeli aggression.

Thursday was the first anniversary of the car bomb killing of Hezbollah's military commander, Imad Mughniyah, in Damascus, Syria. Israel, which denies having a role in his death, has threatened to attack Lebanon if Hezbollah tries to avenge his killing.

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Rafei is a special correspondent.

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