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Sunnis riot to protest Lebanon’s new leader

Mikati supported by Hezbollah

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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.

"We are so angry," said Mai Ali Osmen, an English teacher, as men set fire to the office of a Hezbollah-allied political party. "Everywhere in Lebanon, we refuse this decision."

"If [Hezbollah] continues the way it is now, a lot of other things will happen," businessman Nasser Harmouch said as he watched men burn furniture in the street.

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.

"A Hezbollah-controlled government would clearly have an impact on our bilateral relationship," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to Reuters news agency.

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.

Protesters in Tripoli began the day in high spirits — dancing, waving flags and chanting, "Saad, Saad, Saad." Many said they still thought Mr. Hariri would take back his prime minister post.

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.

Hezbollah says the tribunal is an Israeli-American scheme designed to discredit the organization and has vowed to "cut the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest its members.

Mr. Mikati is expected to form a government that will meet Hezbollah's demands that Lebanon cease all cooperation with and funding for the court, and remove the Lebanese judges.

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.

But for many Sunnis, the fact that Shiite Hezbollah supports Mr. Mikati, a Sunni, makes him a traitor.

"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.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah blamed March 14, the political coalition of Saad Hariri, for inciting violence by refusing to work with the new government.

Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 alliance call Mr. Mikati a "consensus candidate," while March 14 says he is a Hezbollah candidate.

"Saying that [Mr. Mikati] is Hezbollah's candidate is sectarian incitement," Mr. Nasrallah said, according to the local news source Naharnet.

As the protests were reported to subside, Mr. Mikati, who was prime minister of a caretaker government for about four months in 2005, reached out to Mr. Hariri publicly.

"I can't sever the relation with Hariri," Mr. Mikati said, according to local news reports. "And after he calms down, he'll know that I'm one of the closest people to him."

It is, however, common for Lebanese politicians to offer cooperation without compromise on the issue of the international tribunal, for which Mr. Hariri repeatedly has vowed his support.

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