Wed, Mar 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Party flavor permeates huge Beirut protest

POWERFUL TURNOUT Women with plunging necklines mixed with Muslim women in modest robes at a broad-based rally to demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces


Thousands of Lebanese opposition protesters gather during a demonstration in Martyrs Square, central Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday with the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque under construction at left. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people answered a call for a massive protest to demand a full Syrian troop withdrawal, resignations of security chiefs and an international investigation into the death of former premier Rafik Hariri.


In the tightly packed crowds of Lebanon's biggest protest ever, young and old threw a party: Children streamed in from schools, men and women snapped souvenir cellphone photos and demonstrators directed barbed jokes at Syria.

"Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep," one sign jabbed, with a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad looking ruefully at his father, former president Hafez Assad.

It was the broadest-based rally the opposition has held in its series of protests demanding Syria remove its forces from Lebanon and end its domination of the country. Druse rolled in from the mountains east and southeast of Beirut, Christians from the heartland in the northeast -- and Sunni Muslims turned out big from the north.

In the crowd, blond women with sleeveless tops and plunging necklines mixed with conservative Muslim women in headscarves and modest robes. Protesters who came in from Lebanon's different regions could be picked out by their distinctive accents.

A powerful turnout was key for the opposition movement, whose credibility was on the line after the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah last week brought out a half-million people in support of Syria and after the Lebanese government brought back pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, whose resignation had been the opposition's most concrete accomplishment.

And by all accounts, the opposition showed its pull on the street. More than 1 million people joined the rally, according to Lebanon's leading LBC TV station and some police officials. An Associated Press estimate put the number at over 800,000.

The coastal highway from northern Lebanon was turned into a one-way street, jammed with cars and buses bringing protesters. Flags fluttered from windows plastered with pictures of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, with children leaning their heads out of windows to chant. Some people were stuck in their cars for up to six hours, others left their vehicles to walk.

Some even raced on speedboats to the seaside Martyrs Square.

Along with TV ads, the opposition sent out a flurry of e-mails and telephone text messages calling on people to show up. One message pointed to Karami's claim that the Hezbollah rally showed the government has the support of the majority.

"Prove him wrong by being at Martyrs' Square," the call flashed across cell phones and computers.

Everywhere in Martyrs' Square were the red and white bars and green cedar tree emblem of the Lebanese flags. Men and women painted their faces with the colors -- some with the cedar right over their noses. Bandanas, scarves, aprons and armbands bore the colors. And thousands waved flags, clambering over the minarets and scaffoldings of Mohammed al-Amin Mosque or up nearby buildings.

Children wearing backpacks came from schools, some brought by their parents. Thousands of people spilled over into nearby Riad Solh Square, where Hezbollah held its rally last week.

Lebanese soldiers stood idly watching the protest, taking no action to stop the demonstrators -- unlike in some previous opposition protests.

"It was as if they were part of the protesters," opposition legislator Marwan Hamadeh said.

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