Tuesday, March 1, 2005

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s prime minister and his entire Cabinet resigned yesterday, satisfying a demand by tens of thousands of protesters, whose ranks swelled in a public push for democracy that is unprecedented in the Arab world.

Waving flags and cheering as the resignation was announced, the demonstrators also demanded that Syria end its occupation by withdrawing its troops and agents, who oversee decisions by Lebanese government officials.

A tent city near the tomb of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri continued to expand yesterday, mirroring recent protests that ushered in a democratically elected, pro-Western government in Ukraine.

“I love America. Tell Bush to come here. Thank him, thank [French President Jacques] Chirac. This is a great day for all Arab people,” said an Arab Christian named Sady.

“Americans are welcome. We need them,” said a demonstrator named Paul, a member of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia.

When told that U.S. troops were not likely to come, Paul said: “Well, then we need the French. We need NATO. We need help to clear our country of these dogs.”

Prime Minister Omar Karami announced his government’s resignation in a message relayed by loudspeakers to a crowd of about 25,000 at Beirut’s Martyrs Square.

Cheers erupted and protesters began handing out red roses to soldiers and police.

When Lebanese soldiers came near, the crowd chanted to them in Arabic: “We need only one army, and it’s you,” a reference protesting the 15,000 Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon.

In Washington, the White House praised the resignation of Mr. Karami’s government, saying it opens the door for new elections “free of all foreign interference,” referring to neighboring Syria.

“We are closely watching developments with great interest,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “The resignation of the Karami government represents an opportunity for the Lebanese people to have a new government that is truly representative of their country’s diversity.”

When pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud appeared on two giant TV screens set up in Martyrs Square, the crowd chanted, “Your turn is next, your turn is next.”

Mr. Lahoud is especially unpopular because Syria forced through a constitutional change last year that added three years to his term in office.

“Today, the government fell. Tomorrow, it’s the one huddled in Anjar,” opposition leader Elias Atallah told the crowd to cheers, referring to the Syrian intelligence chief based in the eastern Lebanese town of Anjar. Mr. Atallah said the opposition will continue its actions until all demands are met.

Demonstrators came from across Lebanon’s sectarian divide.

They included the Free Patriotic Movement, consisting mainly of Christian university students; the Lebanese Forces; Druze in traditional costume; Sunni Muslim supporters of Mr. Hariri and Shi’ite Muslims, including women with head scarves.

Many wore the red bandanas adopted by the opposition in what has been termed a peaceful “independence uprising.”

All said they plan to continue demonstrating until the Syrians leave.

“It is the first victory, but it will not be the last,” opposition leader and former Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told the crowd in a scene broadcast live around the Arab world.

The crowd seemed uncertain of the future course, but most expect a caretaker government of technocrats to take over until scheduled elections in late April or early May.

“I really never thought this could happen. I thought there would be some kind of deal. I thought we would be betrayed. I still can’t believe it,” said a Shi’ite Muslim from southern Lebanon who gave his name as Hussein.

Anthony Laytif, a student at the American University of Beirut and member of the Free Patriotic Movement, said: “We recognize that we are cousins to Syria and that we need a relationship with them, but it needs to be a relationship of equals and not domination.”

Syria is widely accused of a role in the assassination of Mr. Hariri in a massive bombing on Feb. 14. The explosion killed 16 others and shattered Beirut’s revival after years of civil war.

Soldiers initially blocked some demonstrators attempting to reach Martyrs Square, renamed “Freedom Square” by demonstrators after Mr. Hariri’s death.

But once the prime minister announced his resignation, soldiers dropped their guard and stood by as demonstrators moved freely. The soldiers continued to seal off access to the parliament.

Demonstrators began arriving Sunday night and early yesterday to be in place for a scheduled vote of confidence in the parliament.

By last night, the demonstration had turned into a celebration, with revelers jumping and waving flags.

Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, holed up in the mountains out of fear that he will be the next assassination target, spoke to the crowd by video link.

He said the “people have won” and called for calm. “Today, we are at a new turning point in the history of the country.”

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

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