- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of people swarmed the streets yesterday chanting “freedom, sovereignty, independence” in by far the largest of a half-dozen demonstrations held in the past month.

Published estimates put the size of the anti-Syrian crowd at between 800,000 and 1 million — roughly twice the size of a pro-Syrian rally organized a week ago by the radical movement Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist group.

Waving Lebanese flags and signs that read, “No to half-measures,” the marchers held Syria accountable for the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a mysterious bomb blast one month ago.

They also demanded that Syrian troops end a three-decade-long occupation of Lebanon as required by a U.N. Security Council resolution passed this fall.

Syria has already repatriated about 4,000 of the 14,000 troops who were in Lebanon at the time of Mr. Hariri’s death and has begun moving the remainder into the Bekaa Valley near its border.

Terje Roed-Larsen, an envoy of the United Nations, said over the weekend that Syrian President Bashar Assad had promised to withdraw all the remaining troops and intelligence agents, meeting the provisions of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

Syrian officials have hinted that the pullback will be completed before Lebanese elections in May — as demanded by the United States — but Mr. Assad has not confirmed that and the intelligence agents are still in Beirut, where they have long manipulated government policy.

Yesterday’s rally was the latest and largest in a series of protests by a coalition of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims sparked by Mr. Hariri’s death. Hezbollah — the largest Shi’ite Muslim party — and Syria have countered with three huge pro-Syrian demonstrations.

The protesters two weeks ago forced the resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, only to see him re-appointed last week by President Emile Lahoud after a huge Hezbollah-led rally. Both sides appear to be positioning themselves ahead of parliamentary elections expected in May.

After a week in which the pro-Syrian forces had seized the momentum, yesterday’s massive turnout seems to have re-energized the opposition movement.

“The Hezbollah rally and reappointment of Karami were a slap in our faces,” said one protest organizer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“But we needed to show the government and the world that we can put as many people on the street to demand freedom and independence as they can to defend the status quo of corruption, occupation and humiliation,” he said.

The entire crowd — which numbered in the low hundreds of thousands in the early afternoon and grew throughout the day — fell silent at 12:55 p.m. to mark the death of Mr. Hariri exactly one month earlier.

The former prime minister, who resigned last year to protest heavy-handed Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs, is the man most often credited with converting the ruins of post-war Beirut into a glittering playground for the Arab world’s well-heeled.

The anti-Syrian demonstrations have been organized by a quartet of one-time rivals — the Christian Lebanese Forces, the Christian-led Free Patriotic Movement, the major Druze socialist party led by warlord-turned-statesman Walid Jumblatt, and Sunnis activated by the Hariri family political machine.

Mr. Hariri’s sister and four sons have broad political influence and access to a fortune of about $4 billion.

One marcher, Khalid, a Sunni from a wealthy family, tried to explain the dynamic behind the increasingly large demonstrations and counterdemonstrations.

“When we were protesting before, we sent our young people and university students against the government,” he said.

“When Hezbollah does a protest, everyone is ordered to go, given rides, and brings the whole family,” he said. “So today … we brought our families.

“My pregnant wife marched. My old mother marched, and now you see who has the biggest demonstration.”

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