- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

From combined dispatches

BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese staged a rally in support of the militant Shi’ite Islamic movement Hezbollah yesterday in a downtown Beirut square, paralyzing the capital in a bid to drive the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora from power.

Demonstrators blocked all roads leading to Mr. Siniora’s offices, which were barricaded by fully armed troops and armored vehicles deployed around the Ottoman-style building. Government supporters said they had been able to open an access corridor to the building by the end of the day.

While largely peaceful, the protests were a vivid demonstration of the increasing confidence and clout of Hezbollah, which enjoys backing from Syria and Iran and has seen its regional reputation soar following a military standoff against Israel in a 34-day war this summer.

“Siniora out! We want a free government,” protesters chanted. Police estimated the crowd at around 800,000, while Hezbollah backers put the turnout at more than 1 million — more than a quarter of the country’s population.

Other chants denounced Israel and U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman.

Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies in the Lebanese parliament said open-ended protests would continue until Mr. Siniora resigned or the Shi’ite parties were given a veto over government decisions.

The Bush administration and a number of Sunni Arab governments in the region issued statements of support for Mr. Siniora, whose supporters said the government would not be intimidated.

“The government will not fall due to pressure from the street,” said Saad Hariri, head of Lebanon’s pro-Western parliamentary majority, in a television interview. “However long they continue their protest, the government will not fall.”

John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York that, “People have a right to express their political opinions, but in terms of this being part of the Iran- and Syria-inspired coup d’etat against the government of Lebanon, we’re obviously quite concerned about it.”

Mr. Hariri and other members of the pro-Western “March 14 Movement” accuse Hezbollah and its allies of trying to quash a U.N.-backed probe into the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Mr. Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon suspect Syrian involvement in the killing, which has upset Lebanon’s traditional balancing act between Christian, Muslim and Druze communities.

The Hezbollah protest came just a week after smaller pro-government demonstrations in the wake of the assassination of anti-Syrian Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, scion of a famous Lebanese Christian political family. He was gunned down by unknown assailants on a Beirut street Nov. 21.

Sectarian violence in Iraq and Sunni Arab fears of a rising Shi’ite “mobilization” across the region have only heightened the stakes in Lebanon, according to Hisham Milhem, Washington correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar.

“This is a deeply divided country, and the attitudes in Lebanon are influenced by what is taking place elsewhere in the region,” Mr. Milhem said.

Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.

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