- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

1:41 p.m.

BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of protesters from Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies massed today in downtown Beirut seeking to force the resignation of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who was holed up in his office ringed by hundreds of police and combat troops.

The protest, which police estimated at 800,000, created a sea of Lebanese flags that blanketed downtown and spilled onto the surrounding streets. Hezbollah officials put the number at 1 million — one-fourth of Lebanon’s population.

“Siniora out. We want a free government,” protesters shouted through loudspeakers. The crowd roared in approval amid the deafening sound of Hezbollah revolutionary and nationalist songs. “We want a clean government,” read one placard, stating what has become the opposition’s motto.

Beginning a long-threatened campaign to force Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government from office, Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies said the demonstration would be followed by a wave of open-ended protests. Hezbollah had threatened demonstrations unless it and its allies obtained a veto share of the Cabinet — a demand Mr. Siniora and Lebanon’s anti-Syrian parties rejected. The protests now aim to generate enough popular pressure to paralyze the Siniora government and force it out.

Heavily armed soldiers and police had closed all roads to downtown, feverishly unfurling barbed wire and placing barricades.

Despite Hezbollah’s assurances the protests will be peaceful, the heavy security came amid fears that the protests may turn into clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian factions or that Hezbollah supporters could try to storm Siniora’s government headquarters.

Hezbollah’s security men, donning caps, formed two lines between the protesters and the security forces to prevent clashes.

“I wish that the prime minister and his ministers were among us today, not hiding behind barbed wire and army armored carriers. He who has his people behind him does not need barbed wire,” Michel Aoun, a Christian leader and Hezbollah ally, told the crowd.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has not made a public appearance since a September rally for the militant group, could not be seen today. However, his speeches, blared through loudspeakers, drove the crowd wild with cheers.

At the rally, some protesters occasionally cried “Death to Israel” and “We want Feltman’s government to go,” a reference to U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman.

“We don’t want the [U.S.] Embassy inside the prime ministry,” said one demonstrator, Mahmoud Zeineddin.

Inside, Mr. Siniora went about his schedule in what appeared to be a tactic to ignore the throngs outside. A day earlier, he vowed his government would not fall but warned that “Lebanon’s independence is threatened, and its democratic system is in danger.”

A demonstration last week for a slain anti-Syrian politician also drew hundreds of thousands of people downtown, filling Martyr’s Square. Today’s appeared larger, as protesters swarmed not only that square but others as well as nearby streets and parking lots.

Supporters planned to set up camp around the clock in tents erected on a road outside Mr. Siniora’s office and in a downtown square.

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