- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

BEIRUT — Government supporters carrying balloons and Lebanese flags filled a downtown square yesterday to remember a slain former prime minister and criticize Syria. Hezbollah-led opposition supporters looked on from behind razor wire separating the two sides.

The mood was subdued amid fears the divided country could erupt — and exhaustion over the prolonged political crisis. Hundreds of troops were deployed to deter a clash between the sides a day after bombs tore through buses and killed three persons.

The demonstration, which ended in the afternoon without incident, lacked the fervor seen at past protests mounted by both sides of Lebanon’s political spectrum.

Tens of thousands of supporters of the U.S.-backed government packed Martyrs’ Square to commemorate Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister killed in a suicide bombing on Feb. 14, 2005. But save for a few outbursts of slogan chanting and small groups singing and dancing to the beat of drums, the rally was uneventful. Many youths dozed on the grass or chatted with friends.

The government, dominated by Hariri allies, hoped the rally would strengthen its position in the standoff with Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah. The Hezbollah-led opposition has been camping out in downtown Beirut since Dec. 1 in an effort to force Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to resign, but he has not given in.

Lebanon has been hit by a string of bombings since the one that killed Mr. Hariri, most of them targeting prominent anti-Syrian figures. Tuesday’s bombing of two buses outside Beirut was the first that appeared intended to cause maximum casualties among civilians.

In a bid to boost turnout, the government declared yesterday a national holiday, closing schools, universities, banks and public institutions. Police declined to give crowd estimates.

The opposition said it also wanted to avoid the violence that marred a demonstration last month. In a letter published on the front page of As-Safir newspaper, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah praised Mr. Hariri, saying his assassination was a loss for the whole country.

Mr. Hariri is credited with rebuilding the country from the destruction of the 1975-90 civil war. The government blames Syria for his assassination; Syria denies it.

Outrage over the assassination forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year presence. But the government and its allies assert that Syria is trying to re-emerge as a major power through Hezbollah.

Dozens of people interviewed at yesterday’s rally said the main reason they attended was to show support for an international tribunal that could determine who killed Mr. Hariri and 22 others two years ago. Hezbollah has blocked the tribunal’s ratification by parliament, insisting it have a say in how the panel will operate.

“The international tribunal is the only way for any solution,” said Mr. Hariri’s son, Saad, drawing cheers from the crowd.

In Washington, President Bush also called for the tribunal’s establishment. “The evil perpetrators of these attacks will not silence the Lebanese people’s demands for justice and democracy in an independent Lebanon,” he said.

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