TRIPOLI, Lebanon | Sunni Muslims staged violent demonstrations Tuesday after Lebanese lawmakers announced that the candidate Hezbollah supported for prime minister — telecommunications mogul Najib Mikati — had won the post.
In the northern city of Tripoli, Mr. Mikati’s hometown and an epicenter of Sunni belief, thousands of protesters took to the streets after their leaders called for “a day of rage,” accusing the Shiite group Hezbollah of attempting a coup d’etat.
The protest began peacefully but escalated into violence after a few hours. Gunfire rang out overhead as angry young men stormed buildings, burned flags, threw rocks and set fire to a van belonging to Al Jazeera news network, which they accused of supporting Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, the United States, which backed Lebanon’s previous government, indicated that it would rethink its economic and military support for the nation if Hezbollah — a U.S.-designated terrorist group — takes control. Since 2006, the U.S. has supplied Lebanon with $720 million in military aid.
Hezbollah’s rise to power also raises concerns with Israel, which the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant group is committed to eradicating. Hezbollah, which caused the collapse of the previous government this month when Hezbollah ministers resigned from the Cabinet of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last fall at rallies that drew tens of thousands of fans in Lebanon.
Analysts said a government led by Hezbollah, which has Lebanon's strongest military, would dramatically change the dynamics of the region and isolate the country from its Western allies. They also expressed concern that the change could reignite the sectarian violence that ravaged the country years ago.
Nonetheless, Mr. Mikati, 55, called for a unity government, dismissing criticism that he is a Hezbollah candidate and that a new government would be controlled by Iran or Syria. He appeared in a TV interview late Tuesday.
“My hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians in order to build and not to destroy,” said Mr. Mikati, whose moderate credentials and Harvard education make it difficult for opponents to cast him off as a pro-Hezbollah figure with a militant agenda, the Associated Press reported.
Mr. Hariri was ousted about two weeks ago when 11 ministers resigned. Ten of the 11 were from Hezbollah, and they quit in protest of Lebanon’s support for the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
The Western-backed tribunal is expected to name Hezbollah members in connection with the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the father of Saad Hariri. The court last week handed up its first indictments, which are not expected to be made public for several weeks.
Tripoli’s protesters broke into the office of a Hezbollah-allied party Tuesday and threw furniture out the windows. They burned the furniture in the streets. Many in the crowd cheered, while others stared.
Soldiers fired multiple rounds of warning shots as rioters moved on to a building associated with the Syrian Nationalist Party, another Hezbollah ally. The crowd fled, only to return moments later.
The Lebanese army had been on the scene since several men seized a truck belonging to Al Jazeera earlier in the day. The men ripped apart the truck and torched it while soldiers watched and kept the crowd away from the billowing fire.
The Lebanese army also is divided along sectarian lines and was ordered not to intervene, according to locals. They said many of the soldiers agreed with the protesters in this mostly Sunni city.
The Lebanese Constitution requires the prime minister to be a Sunni, the president a Christian Maronite and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Each denomination accounts for about one-third of the country’s 4 million people.
“I came here for Saad al-Hariri,” said Ziad Abdullah, an 18-year-old wearing a blue scarf around his head as a sign of his support for the Future Movement, the party of the ousted prime minister. “Because he is Sunni, and I am Sunni.”
The Lebanese army eventually did intervene by parking tanks around a building targeted by rioters. In the hours that followed, local news sources reported multiple shots fired and heightened military efforts to disperse the crowd.
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