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Pro-Syrian demonstrators turn out in force in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators sang and waved flags and anti-American posters Tuesday in a display of support for the militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, which opposes a Bush administration demand that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

The three-hour protest, which packed the square in front of the United Nations building, dwarfed three weeks of almost daily, but much smaller, demonstrations by anti-Syrian Lebanese that have captured worldwide attention and led to calls from Washington and Europe for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon.

The huge demonstration marked a political coming out of Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who made a rare appearance outside his heavily guarded compound in southern Beirut to address the rally. No Hezbollah leader has ever taken a significant role in Lebanese national politics.

Hezbollah has grown from a small Iran-backed militia that launched repeated attacks against Israeli troops on Lebanese soil in the 1980s. The group is also blamed for the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 that killed 241 servicemen, as well as the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut the same year and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex in 1984.

While Hezbollah continues to launch sporadic attacks across the border on Israel, it has gradually evolved into an organization that also provides a wide range of social services to Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, who comprise Lebanon's largest ethnic group with up to 40 percent of the population. Hezbollah, which remains heavily armed, dominates local government in areas where it is active and has 12 representatives in the parliament.

Tuesday's rally struck a strong nationalistic, anti-Western tone, while also praising Syria.

Loudspeakers blared Lebanon's national anthem repeatedly, with demonstrators joining in to sing the words. Some carried placards with such slogans as, "All our disasters are from America," and "Thank you Syria and Assad," referring to Syrian president Bashar Assad.

Nasrallah blasted the United States and the idea that Lebanon was joining a democratic movement similar to Ukraine or Georgia.

"I would like to ask our compatriots and those observing us from the outside: Are these hundred of thousands all puppets? Is this entire crowd agents for the Syrians and Lebanese (intelligence agencies)? Nasrallah asked the cheering crowd. "To America and President Bush: You're wrong in your calculations about Lebanon."

The Bush administration has repeatedly called for an immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

The demonstration highlighted the depth of Lebanon's ethnic divide, which has split the nation between pro- and anti-Syrian factions.

The anti-Syrian movement, which has united Christians, Druze and many Muslims since the Feb. 14 assassination of senior opposition leader Rafik Hariri, seeks to cut Syrian domination of Lebanese affairs and to send back some 15,000 Syrian troops who have occupied the country since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. The protestors and many Lebanese believe Hariri's death was the work of pro-Syrian agents, although both Syrian and Lebanese officials have denied involvement.

In response to the protests, the Lebanese cabinet resigned last week.

In spite of Lebanon's deep political divisions, demonstrators were careful to avoid violence. At Nasrallah's request, only Lebanese flags were flown and nationalist songs were sung, with calls for Lebanese unity and harmony dominating speeches.

Anti-Syrian demonstrators, sharing that same concern, were virtually absent from the square where they've camped out since last month.

One of them, Omar Abdullah, 20, a Sunni Muslim college freshman, went to Tuesday's demonstration with his pro-Syrian roommate, Qassem Hamoud, 20, a Shiite Muslim college freshman.

"We are united, we are Lebanese," said Abdullah, who like his roommate, is majoring in banking. "We don't want there to be another war here between any of the people."

Hezbollah security guards donning silver hats handled security, lining the perimeter of the square and taking position on rooftops. Dozens of Lebanese troops kept watch from a distance. Trained dogs sniffed for bombs and manholes were sealed to prevent explosives from being buried underneath.

Several Hezbollah members hastily built a bulletproof enclosure for Nasrallah before he arrived, fearing assassination attempts.

Hezbollah bused many of the protesters from Lebanon's Shiite-dominated south and the east, near the Syrian border. Starting points included Anjar and Chtura, where many Syrian intelligence officers stationed in Lebanon reside.

By mid morning the Damascus-Beirut Highway was filled with buses, trucks and vans decorated with side-by-side pictures of Assad and his ally, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud—a visual symbol of the close bond between their countries. Other vehicles bore posters of Nasrallah.

"Yallah, inshallah, Nasrallah, Bashar, wabas," many of the demonstrators chanted in rhyme as their vehicles rolled toward Beirut from the Hezbollah-dominated Bekaa Valley. Roughly translated the slogan means "with God's grace" Hezbollah and Syria are "enough" to insure Lebanon's security.

Also on the move were empty Syrian military flatbed trucks and trailers, arriving to support the coming redeployment of Syrian troops announced Monday by Assad and Lahoud under international pressure to comply with U.N. resolution 1559, which demands the immediate withdrawal of "all foreign forces" from Lebanon.

But the leaders and Nasrallah reject full adoption of the resolution, which also calls for disarming Hezbollah. Instead they and opposition leaders have called for enforcing the Arab-brokered Taif Accord of 1989, which stipulates a Syrian pullback to the border to be followed by Lebanese-Syrian negotiations for a final return of the forces to Syria.

Nasrallah called for further demonstrations on Friday in Tripoli to the north, and on Sunday in Nabatiya to the south, in a bid to put pressure on opposition leaders to end the crisis and meet with Lahoud to form a new government in the coming days.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Michael Matza of the Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.)

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050208 LEBANON Syria

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