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Funeral for slain Lebanese leader turns into rally

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Downtown Beirut was transformed into a river of red and white Lebanese flags Thursday as emotional demonstrators turned the funeral of assassinated anti-Syrian politician Pierre Gemayel into a show of support for the beleaguered pro-Western government.

At times angry, ebullient, dispirited and defiant, protesters converged on Martyrs' Square, where the slain man's father, former President Amin Gemayel, told the crowd that the turnout marked "the start of a second revolution for the independence of Lebanon."

The turnout provided an emotional boost for Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, the pro-Western leader who's trying to fend off a political coup by the country's Shiite Hezbollah militia and prevent neighboring Syria from reasserting unwanted influence on the tiny nation's fractious political system.

"We are not going to give up," said Abed Kassir, an 18-year-old college student who took part with hundreds of thousands of others in the rally. "We want a democracy free of Syrian influence."

Gemayel was gunned down Tuesday in a daylight attack that pushed the government one step closer to possible collapse and edged Lebanon toward a sectarian war.

The funeral for the 34-year-old son of a Maronite Christian political dynasty provided leaders of Lebanon's pro-Western forces with a forum to energize their supporters. Gemayel was the fifth prominent anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated in Lebanon since February 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb.

Then, as now, many accused Syria of ordering the assassination in an attempt to undermine the Lebanese government. Hariri's death sparked the Cedar Revolution, a peaceful protest movement that drove Syrian forces from Lebanon after decades of political dominance.

Syria has denied playing any role in any of the assassination plots of the past year, but it has been highly critical of an ongoing United Nations investigation that has focused on allegations that high-level Syrian officials played a role in Hariri's death.

Among those attending the funeral were Hariri's son, Saad; television talk show host May Chidac, who was seriously injured last year in a car bomb blast; and Saniora.

Demonstrators greeted the political leaders with cheers as they entered St. George Cathedral. "Pierre lives in our hearts," they chanted. "Saad. Saad. Hariri. Hariri."

After the funeral, Saad Hariri addressed a crowd a few hundred yards from where his father is buried.

"You are here for a new revolution to show the entire world that the sons of Rafik Hariri and the brothers of Pierre Gemayel are the majority in Lebanon," Hariri said from behind bulletproof glass.

After calling for calm earlier in the week, Gemayel's father used the rally to criticize President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian closely allied with Syria and Hezbollah.

"Change will start at the top by electing a new president," said Amin Gemayel, who served as president for six years in the 1980s while Lebanon was engulfed in civil war and confronting Israel's military drive to rout Palestinian militants from Beirut.

Lahoud stayed away from the funeral. The few pro-Syrian and Hezbollah allies who attended were greeted with jeers and boos as they entered the cathedral. Amin Gemayel appeared to snub Hezbollah ally and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri by ignoring him as he greeted officials in the church and moved on to hug Saniora standing next to him in the front row.

Demonstrators carried signs critical of Syria: "Syria'l killing regime: Enough" read one. "Shove your civil war," read another.

While Thursday's march ended peacefully as Gemayel's flag-draped coffin was returned to his family home in the mountains for burial, there's widespread concern about what will happen next.

While Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, have postponed plans for their own street protests, the group is still intent on bringing down Saniora's government.

The fall of the government would be a setback for U.S. efforts to spread democracy and would worry Sunni Muslim nations, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, about growing Shiite power in the region.

Six Hezbollah allies in the Cabinet resigned nearly two weeks ago in a bid to topple the government just as it was preparing to approve a beefed up international investigation into Hariri's assassination.

Lahoud and Hezbollah said the Saniora government had no authority to authorize a United Nations tribunal without participation from Shiite Cabinet ministers, but the now-smaller Cabinet approved the plan nevertheless.

Hours after Gemayel's assassination, the United Nations Security Council endorsed the plan to set up a tribunal to try those suspected of involvement in Hariri's death and sent it back to the Lebanese government for ratification.

Hezbollah has been looking to boost its influence in Lebanon following its 34-day war with Israel this summer. While the war ravaged the Shiite-dominated area of southern Beirut and southern Lebanon, Hezbollah emerged from the battle with increased political stature because it was viewed as having fought Israel to a draw.

Nasrallah has used his enhanced standing to demand a greater Shiite role in the government, where Christians and Muslims are allotted an equal number of seats in the parliament.

Hezbollah and its Christian allies led by Maronite Michel Aoun have been demanding more than a third of the Cabinet seats, which would give them the power to veto government decisions.

Saniora and his allies rejected the idea, sparking the Cabinet resignations and the political crisis.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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