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Lebanese groups uniting to end Syrian domination

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Lebanon has come a long way in the nearly three weeks since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed near this city's trendy waterfront in a massive bomb blast that was widely blamed on pro-Syrian agents.

Hariri's death spawned a popular revolt, drawing together Muslims—including the Druze sect—and Christians for the first time in decades to pursue a common goal: freedom from Syrian occupation.

The question is how long this newfound unity can last among ethnic groups that were killing one another just a few years ago in a long, bloody civil war that Syrian intervention helped to quell.

"All of the frustrations we had in our minds, hearts and blood have burst out," said Nayla Mouawad, a veteran Maronite Christian parliament member, draping around her neck the red-and-white scarf that's become the symbol of the rebellion against Syrian occupation. Mouawad's husband, Rene, was assassinated 17 days after he became president in 1989.

"Real power is in the hands of Lebanese and Syrian security services," she said in her hilltop apartment overlooking this capital city. "That is what we want to get rid of."

Lebanon's Syrian-backed Cabinet resigned on Monday in response to mounting public pressure, which has empowered Mouawad and other opposition leaders who've long sought to change the balance of power in this ethnically and religiously segregated society.

Only a month ago, openly attacking Syria would have drawn security agents straight to Mouawad's door. Now, Lebanese Muslims, Christians and Druze are openly protesting every day for a free and democratic country.

"Arab people are just fed up with authoritarian regimes—they want freedom," said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who's replaced Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, as the de facto leader of the charge against Lebanon's pro-Syrian government.

"This is the first time a Muslim prime minister has been killed and Christians are mourning," said Ghattas Khoury, a parliament member and Hariri ally.

But the newfound unity in what some are calling the "Cedar Revolution"—named for this Mediterranean country's famous trees—will quickly come under strain. Lebanon remains scarred by 15 years of civil war.

Lebanon's religious and political divisions were magnified after it gained independence from France in 1943. The then-dominant Christians, whose largest sect is the Maronites, resisted any comprehensive update to Lebanon's 1932 census, which is used to determine the allocation of government power under the constitution. An update would have favored the faster-growing Muslim population.

Many Arab countries backed Lebanese Muslim factions while Maronites received Israeli and tacit U.S. support. Palestine Liberation Organization attacks launched from Lebanon against Israel further destabilized the Lebanese government. In 1975, the country exploded into a 15-year civil war.

The war ended in 1990, a year after the signing of the Arab-brokered Taif Accord. The accord transferred power from the Maronite presidency to a Cabinet divided equally between the Muslim majority and minority Christians. The agreement also extended government sovereignty over all Lebanese territory and called for the disbanding of militias and the withdrawal of Syrian forces.

Economic revival helped ease ethnic and religious tensions since then, but underlying issues, including the census, remain unresolved. Lebanese who side with their pro-Syrian government fear that a Syrian withdrawal could heighten ethnic tensions again.

As anti-Syrian demonstrators hold a round-the-clock vigil in a makeshift tent city near the Lebanese parliament, pro-government protests in the north left at least one person dead and damaged businesses in the past week.

Even more potentially worrisome: Lebanon's Shiite Muslims have largely remained on the sidelines, with members of their most important faction—Hezbollah—denouncing the budding revolution.

The Shiites are increasingly suspicious that Syrian dominance may be replaced by U.S. dominance. The United States has long viewed the Iranian-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist group. For many Lebanese, however, Hezbollah earned legitimacy when its militia attacked and ultimately pushed Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon.

The Bush administration wants a rapid Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon to be accompanied by the disarming of Hezbollah. The United States and France pushed through a U.N. resolution to that effect late last year.

"It seems what they (the opposition) are asking is for our country to be taken to the edge of the unknown," said Mohammad Raad, a Hezbollah member of parliament. "This is not acceptable."

Even the movement's supporters wonder if the new allies against Syria will remain united if their common enemy withdraws.

So far, opposition leaders, mostly parliament members who until last month wielded little clout, have agreed on only two issues. In the coming days they'll demand that President Emile Lahoud find Hariri's killer and ease Syria out of Lebanon's political, security and military life.

Key among their demands is the resignation of the heads of six Lebanese security agencies and the state prosecutor, who're widely viewed as being linked to Damascus.

"If this had been an attack in Tel Aviv, (the Israelis) would tell you immediately whether it was a car bomb, a bus bomb or whatever and who did it," Khoury said. "Until now, we still don't even know what happened here."

Opposition leaders believe that if their demands are met, Lahoud will be rendered powerless. His hold over the army is already tenuous after soldiers failed to stop tens of thousands of demonstrators from gathering outside the parliament on Monday.

The demands, if met, could help ensure that general elections proceed in May untainted by Syrian influence. Opposition leaders hope to win the election and shape a government that will lead Lebanon to a unified, independent future.

Jumblatt, and to a lesser extent, the Maronites, have distanced themselves from the U.N. resolution, instead endorsing the Taif Accord, which calls for Syrian forces to pull back to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border to be followed by negotiations with the Lebanese government for a final withdrawal.

"It's an Arabic way out of the Syrian (issue) and a kind of protection for Hezbollah," Jumblatt said. "We are not asking for a disarming of Hezbollah."

A growing chorus of Arab leaders and even Hezbollah are demanding that the Taif agreement be enforced immediately.

Most Syrian troops are already in the Bekaa Valley, but Lebanese opposition leaders insist that Syrian security agents join them.

Raad, of Hezbollah, said it's better for Lebanon if Syrian forces remain until after May's elections, allowing Syria to counterbalance growing U.S. influence.

So far, Syria has rejected an actual withdrawal.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050302 Lebanon economy, 20050301 LEBANON SYRIA, 20050301 Lebanon politics

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