Wed, 09 Mar 2005


Massive pro-Syrian protest as troops begin pullback

Tanalee Smith, Associated Press/Beirut

Tens of thousands of pro-Syrian protesters gathered in a central Beirut square on Tuesday, answering a nationwide call by the militant Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group to demonstrate against foreign intervention and counter weeks of massive anti-Syrian rallies. Loudspeakers blared forceful songs of resistance; organizers denounced the United States and handed out Lebanese flags.

Black-clad Hezbollah guards handled security, lining the perimeter of the square and taking position on rooftops. Trained dogs sniffed for bombs and street drainage holes were checked for explosives ahead of the mid-afternoon protest. Large cranes hoisted two giant white and red flags bearing Lebanon's cedar tree. On one, the words "Thank you Syria" were written in English; on the other, "No to foreign interference."

As at least 50,000 packed the square and many more were still coming from the regions, speakers on a platform led chants of: "Beirut is free! America get out!"

The square was just a few blocks from another downtown square where opposition protesters have been staging protests for days, demanding that Syria withdraw the 14,000 troops it maintains in Lebanon.

A day after the Syrian and Lebanese leaders announced that the forces would redeploy to eastern Lebanon, most of the troops were still in position, with Associated Press reporters in the mountains overlooking Beirut seeing only scattered movement of military trucks heading toward the Bekaa Valley.

A truck carrying 11 soldiers and supplies headed east at midmorning but most of the military traffic was moving the other direction - empty trucks and buses traveling west apparently to collect soldiers and equipment. Also headed toward western Lebanon and the capital, Beirut, were scores of cars bearing passengers waving Lebanese flags on their way to a Beirut protest.

Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, has been mobilizing its followers from across the country for the protest, also meant to denounce a UN resolution that, in addition to its demand for Syrian withdrawal, called for dismantling militias - a point Hezbollah sees as aimed at its well-armed military wing.

In the outlying heavily Shiite regions of the Bekaa and the south, loudspeakers urged followers to travel to Beirut for the protest. A newspaper reported that convoys of Syrians were being brought across the border in buses to take part but that could not be confirmed.

Opposition leaders, who have been courting Hezbollah's support in their effort to oust Syrian troops, accused Lebanese intelligence agents of exercising pressure on municipalities, public schools and institutions to drive the numbers up.

Hezbollah officials denied the charges, saying it is part of a campaign to make the demonstration seem "imposed and involuntary."

Hezbollah, founded by Iran and backed in part by Syria, has emerged as a key player during the latest political instability, capable of tilting the balance either in favor of the pro-Syrian government or the anti-Syrian opposition.

On Monday, in the biggest demonstration yet of anti-Syrian furor, more than 70,000 Lebanese shouting "Freedom! Sovereignty! Independence!" thronged central Beirut. The demonstrators waved Lebanon's cedar-tree flag and thundered, "Syria out!"

The demonstrators marched to the site of the Feb. 14 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and touched off the angry but peaceful street protests that drove Lebanon's pro- Syrian government to resign a week ago. Many Lebanese accuse the Syrian government and their government of responsibility for Hariri's death; both deny any involvement.

Faced with incessant international pressure and raging Lebanese opposition, Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday announced his troops would withdraw after nearly three decades in Lebanon. On Monday, he met with President Emile Lahoud in Damascus and jointly announced a plan.

But the plan set no deadline for the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, and Washington rejected the pullback as insufficient. The plan also was unlikely to satisfy the Lebanese opposition and the rest of the international community, which have demanded that all Syrian soldiers and an unknown number of intelligence agents leave the country.

A Syrian official in Damascus who did not want to be named said on Tuesday that Syrian intelligence agents in Lebanon would be pulled back along with the regular army.

On Tuesday morning in the mountains east of Beirut, there was little movement of Syrian troops heading eastward toward the Bekaa Valley or Syria. In Hammana, high up in the foggy and rainy mountains, five soldiers huddled around a bonfire. One washed his face from a hose. Another was smoking nearby.