Hundreds of thousands mark anniversary of former prime minister’s assassination
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hundreds of thousands paid tribute to Rafik Hariri on the anniversary of his assassination Tuesday, shouting anti-Syrian slogans in a show of strength aimed at reviving the “people power” spirit that helped break Damascus’ domination over Lebanon.Anti-Syrian groups – buoyed by a turnout that police put at about 800,000 and organizers said was more than a million – stepped up demands for the resignation of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president.Politicians opposed to Syria are a majority in government and Parliament, but have been unable to force out President Emile Lahoud or catch those behind a series of deadly bombings that claimed dozens of lives, including Hariri and three other prominent anti-Syrian figures.Huge crowds filled downtown Martyrs’ Square Tuesday and thronged Hariri’s nearby grave, waving thousands of red-and-white Lebanese flags with the green cedar symbol.Women wearing Islamic headscarves marched alongside young women in tight jeans, elderly leaning on canes and families pushing babies in strollers. Many demonstrators carried Lebanese flags and signs calling for “The Truth.”The throng repeatedly shouted the name of Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad. And some carried placards denouncing Syria and its president, Bashar Assad.”Isn’t it enough, Bashar?” said one, listing the names of Lebanese opponents of Syria slain in the last year.The crowd fell silent at 12:55 p.m. – the time a huge truck bomb exploded on a downtown street as Hariri’s motorcade drove by a year ago, killing him and 20 others. A horn blew three times to symbolize the instant the bomb went off. Then the crowd roared with shouts of “Syria out.””I came for the sake of national unity,” said Tarek Haj, a 9-year-old Muslim from the northern city of Tripoli.”Those who killed Hariri meant to kill Lebanon, but they failed. A new united Lebanon was born,” Samia Baroudy, a 52-year-old Christian, said as she clutched a Lebanese flag.”We tell them (the Syrians), … ‘Remove the symbol of your suppression of Lebanon and its people because the people of Lebanon will not compromise,” Saad Hariri said, referring to Lahoud. The crowd responded with chants of “with souls, with blood we redeem you, Saad!”Saad Hariri, leader of the largest parliamentary bloc, returned Sunday to rally opponents of Syria after months of self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia and France for fear of assassination.”There can be no stability and no freedom while the symbol of subservience to the Syrian regime remains in Baabda,” Druse leader Walid Jumblatt told the crowd, referring to the presidential palace. Of Lahoud, he said: “The terrorist Bashar (Assad) installed you and the valiant Lebanese people will remove you.”In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated that Lebanon would be better off with a new president.”I think it’s everyone’s view that the presidency should be something that looks to the future of Lebanon, not to its past,” she said in an interview with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. satellite channel.Buses carried people from the country’s remote north, south and east, mainly Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druse. Thousands of troops and police, backed by armored vehicles, provided security and schools were closed for the day. Businesses also shut their doors.Shiite Muslims – the country’s largest single sect – are dominated by pro-Syrian parties Amal and Hezbollah, and Shiites largely stayed away from the demonstrations. So did backers of Michel Aoun, an anti-Syrian Christian who broke with the anti-Syrian coalition.In a statement, President Bush said “Lebanon has continued to make progress in the year since Mr. Hariri’s murder, thanks to the foundation of freedom he laid and the determination of the Lebanese people.”Neither Lahoud nor Syria had any immediate reaction to the gathering. Syria has denied any role in Hariri’s killing or the later bombings, and has stalled on cooperation in the U.N. inquiry into Hariri’s death.Lebanese television and the Arab news networks Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya covered the events throughout the day, with interviews from the scene. But Syria’s official media did not broadcast live footage of the demonstration.Anti-Syrian groups were looking for – and got – a repetition of a March 14 protest, in which about 1 million Lebanese converged on Martyrs’ Square.Syria’s troops withdrew from Lebanon in April under international pressure, and the U.N. probe into Hariri’s slaying already has implicated top Syrian and allied Lebanese security officials in his death.Three top Lebanese generals close to Lahoud have been arrested in connection with the slaying. But Lahoud has remained in office, since anti-Syrian groups in Parliament do not have the two-thirds vote needed to force him out.—Associated Press reporters Hussein Dakroub and Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.