- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah members and their allies flooded central Beirut yesterday demanding changes in the government’s makeup as soldiers strung more barbed wire around the offices of the Western-backed prime minister.

Buoyed by the big turnout after a week of street protests, the pro-Syrian opposition gave Prime Minister Fuad Siniora an ultimatum of a “few days” to accept its demand to form a national unity government with a big role for Hezbollah or face an escalating campaign to oust him.

Mr. Siniora, who has been holed up in his fortified office downtown, rejected the demand and urged his foes to resume negotiations. The opposition should “return to the constitutional institutions to discuss differences and reach real solutions,” he said in a written statement.

Political unrest has split the country along sectarian lines, with most Sunni Muslims supporting the Sunni prime minister and Shi’ite Muslims backing the militant Hezbollah. Christian factions are split between the two camps.

Despite the heated rhetoric of the political confrontation, yesterday’s mass gathering remained peaceful and left the door open to the possibility of a settlement.

“Hopefully it won’t be long. At the end, there will be no winner, no vanquished. We should all be winners,” said Saad Hariri, leader of parliament’s anti-Syria majority and a Siniora supporter.

Police had no immediate crowd estimate, but the horde that jammed downtown plazas and many neighborhoods appeared one of the biggest in a country that has seen a string of mammoth demonstrations by both sides in recent years. A Hezbollah anti-government rally Dec. 1 drew 800,000 of Lebanon’s 4 million people, according to police figures.

Pro-government groups staged a rival demonstration that drew tens of thousands in the northern port city of Tripoli.

Hezbollah’s supporters streamed into downtown from all corners of Lebanon, waving Lebanese and Hezbollah flags as loudspeakers blasted anti-government speeches. Musicians pounded drums in a carnival-like atmosphere, while Hezbollah security agents fanned out in the crowd.

“We have come to show them how big our size really is,” said Reem al-Zein, a 20-year-old philosophy student. “I think this lying government will not be able to last much longer after today.”

Sheik Naim Kassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, said the opposition was willing to stay on the streets for months to achieve its goal.

“Does Bush want popular expression in Lebanon? Do the West and the Arabs want to hear the voice of the people in Lebanon? Tell them ‘Death to America.’ Tell them ‘Death to Israel.’ ” the crowd repeated behind him.

Michel Aoun, a Christian leader allied with Hezbollah, warned Mr. Siniora he had only “a few days” to accept a national unity government or face further action.

“What we hope for today is for them to understand that their era is over,” he said in a video link shown on giant screens.

Mr. Aoun added that the opposition was committed to “to peaceful means, but even other means are legitimate.”

Lebanese media have speculated that the opposition’s next steps could include civil disobedience, the disruption of public services and resignations from parliament.

The political crisis began after talks on a national unity government collapsed and six pro-Hezbollah ministers resigned from the Cabinet. Hezbollah is demanding that it and its allies hold a third of the Cabinet posts, which would allow them to veto government decisions.

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