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Massive anti-government protests continue in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon—A siege on Lebanon's American-backed government continued Saturday with tens of thousands of demonstrators sympathetic to the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia and its allies packing downtown Beirut and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his cabinet.

The demonstrators filled the roads surrounding the center of Beirut, where the prime minister's office is located, effectively shutting down the capital. Hezbollah gave every indication that it is prepared for the long haul: setting up long rows of tents, portable bathrooms and handing out cups of water and sandwiches. Groups of men tended charcoal pits to keep a regular supply for their hookah pipes.

"We have a target, ending the government, and we must achieve it," said Mohammed Khalil, a Hezbollah representative who was sitting with a group of men, all monitoring their walkie-talkies.

Asked if he expected the crowd to turn to violence, Khalil shrugged his shoulders and said, "it is up to them (Lebanese government troops), we want to demonstrate peacefully."

Saniora's government, mostly Christians and Sunni Muslims, has showed no sign of acquiescing.

While Lebanon is a sliver of a nation with a relatively small population of about 4 million, it has long been a battlefield for competing powers in the region. Between Beirut's glittering office buildings, there are still walls pocked by mortar shells, a reminder of the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.

As is true in many other parts of the Middle East, there is in Lebanon an underlying friction: Will the country follow the American model of governance—preferred by Saniora—in which secular administrations pursue free market economies and work toward accommodation with Israel, or will it pursue something closer to Syria and Iran—preferred by Hezbollah—nations that resist U.S. influence and actively oppose Israel.

It is a question that shaped the comments of most Lebanese interviewed Saturday.

Many of those at the demonstration spoke not only about ending Saniora's government, but also of countering U.S. influence. And pro-Saniora officials interviewed Saturday said that they are trying to resist Syrian and Iranian influence.

Both sides agreed that there is potential for violence.

"I don't think the government will resign. I think we are going to see hard times in this country," said Mohammed Kabani, a Sunni Muslim parliament member who backs Saniora. "Whenever you have people in the streets, you cannot disregard the possibility of violence."

Leaning against a tent, and wearing a green ball cap, demonstration organizer Mohammed Marji said that the sooner the government resigns, the better.

"Our prime minister is doing the bidding of the Americans . . . he should leave as soon as possible," said Marji, a member of Amal, a Shiite organization aligned with Hezbollah. "If he doesn't, he will destroy this country, things will deteriorate badly."

The protests are the latest in a round of standoffs between Lebanon's U.S.-backed government and Hezbollah and other supporters of the Syrian government.

Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005 after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive bombing downtown. Anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon immediately blamed Syria for the killing and called for an international inquiry.

More assassinations of anti-Syrian figures followed.

Hezbollah's hand was strengthened in the Shiite community after a 34-day war with Israel this summer that ended in something of stalemate—counted by Hezbollah as a victory because it was able, with less advanced weaponry, to withstand Israel's missile and bombing strikes.

Saniora, on the other hand, appeared ineffectual during the combat, pleading on TV—weeping at one point—for both sides to stop.

Early last month, a White House spokesman said there was evidence that Syria and Iran were planning to overthrow Saniora's government.

Hezbollah cabinet members and their allies had been protesting against Lebanese government plans to approve a United Nations tribunal to investigate Hariri's death. They also agitated for more cabinet seats, wanting the power to veto government action.

When it became apparent they were not going to have their way, all five Hezbollah and Amal cabinet members resigned on Nov. 11, and about a week later, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for street protests to bring down the government.

After Nasrallah's call to action, Pierre Gemayel, a high-profile cabinet member who opposed Syria, was killed in a hail of gunfire in broad daylight.

A protest of hundreds of thousands of Christians and Sunni Muslims followed, and late last month, the remaining 18 cabinet members of the original 24 approved the United Nations measure.

On Friday, Hezbollah and its allies responded in kind, flooding Beirut's downtown streets and bringing the government and businesses to a standstill.

At the demonstration Saturday, a set of loud speakers played recorded speeches by Hezbollah officials and their allies, and thousands of people waved their Lebanese flags and cheered. When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's voice boomed out, "we will stand side by side," a roar went through the crowd that shook the air.

Wandering through the crowd, a McClatchy reporter was approached by young men dressed in black who seemed very eager to discuss Hezbollah's merits.

One of them, Fouad Assaf, explained: "During the war we fled our house and Hezbollah gave us food and money"

Lebanese troops stood nearby, behind two rows of concertina wire and flanked by armored personnel carriers.

Interviewed by phone later in the evening, Hezbollah parliament member Ali Mokdad said the demonstrations were only the beginning.

"We have many plans for the future," Mokdad said. "This is just our first step. It has been planned out, day-by-day."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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