Wednesday, February 23, 2005

BEIRUT — Presidents and diplomats piled on the pressure for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon yesterday, but for the hard-line Ba’athist leaders in Damascus, the most worrisome pressure may be coming from a scruffy tent camp near the Beirut waterfront.

In a land where civil war is endemic but political protest is almost unknown, long-feuding Muslims, Christians and Druze are camping out just blocks from the parliament saying they will not leave until either Syrian troops leave their country or the government falls.

The latter goal could come as early as Monday, after pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami agreed to a no-confidence vote in parliament that had been demanded by the opposition parties.

“I am ready to resign [if defeated], on condition that we agree on a new government in order to avoid falling into a constitutional vacuum,” he told the daily newspaper An-Nahar yesterday.

In Mainz, Germany, President Bush — who has called repeatedly for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon — said Syrian intelligence services should get out of the country, as well. French President Jacques Chirac said Tuesday evening that Syrian “special service operatives controlling Lebanon are in fact more questionable than the military occupation.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also has taken interest in the situation, dispatching his intelligence chief to Damascus for talks with President Bashar Assad.

But regional analysts say Mr. Assad is most likely to be unnerved, not by foreign political pressure but by the unprecedented protest movement sparked by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The tent city rose up near the immense crater created by the blast that killed Mr. Hariri and 16 others, peopled by protesters who refused to go home after a demonstration Monday described as the largest anti-Syrian protest ever held.

Divided into small groups according to affiliation — the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in one area, the followers of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in another — the camp has been growing daily since Monday.

Inspired by December’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia a year earlier, the protesters have begun to call their action the “Cedar Revolt” in a tribute to the tree that adorns the Lebanese flag.

A member of the banned FPM, who identified himself only by the pseudonym “Pascal,” said the protesters were considering another large demonstration tomorrow, “but the plan is to remain peaceful until Monday.”

If the no-confidence vote “fails or is blocked by the Syrian lackeys, then Monday we will escalate the protests.”

A constant stream of mourners and protesters swells the camp population in the evenings. Food and water are brought in by supporters, while a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and a Virgin Megastore provide bathroom facilities.

As during Monday’s mass demonstration, the police and army are keeping a respectful distance from these protesters and seem unwilling to use violence against them. Only those directly in front of the parliament have ammunition clips in their rifles.

The best known leader of the movement is Mr. Jumblatt, the leader of the main Druze political party who, like Mr. Hariri, had begun to speak out against Syrian domination of the country in recent months.

His followers, who fought their Christian and Muslim neighbors during the 1975-90 civil war, now are camped side by side with the FPM protesters and the Christian radicals of the Free Lebanese Forces party who have joined the camp.

Bolstering their numbers are Sunni Muslim supporters of Mr. Hariri’s — a group that was once the most supportive of the Syrian presence.

The confidence of the opposition is tempered by the lack of support from Lebanon’s Shi’ite Muslim population. No major Shi’ite groups have joined, although individual Shi’ites have been participating.

Some demonstrators say that Amal, a major Shi’ite party, has been holding talks with the protest leaders, but it has a long history of close ties to Syria.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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