hariri poster 298.88.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
A massive crowd of flag-waving Lebanese filled Martyrs' Square on Saturday to remember slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - an occasion his supporters used to rally the public before parliamentary elections in which they are fighting to stay in power.
Lebanon remains deeply divided over whether to follow Hariri's pro-Western path or give in to the more radical pull of groups with ties to Iran and Syria.
The pro-Western parties, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia and led by Hariri's son, face a tough election battle in June against rivals supported by the Hezbollah militant group and its Syrian and Iranian allies.
The election showdown reflects Lebanon's enduring political and sectarian divides, which worsened after Hariri's death in a truck bombing on Feb. 14, 2005. No one has been brought to justice for his assassination.
The division culminated in street clashes between Shiite Hezbollah gunmen and mainly Sunni pro-government groups last May that brought the country to the edge of another civil war.
The result was a stronger role in the government for Hezbollah and its allies. Now Hariri's allies want to regain some of the lost political momentum.
The rally in Martyrs' Square, where Hariri is buried, was peaceful. Hariri's Future TV and his political movement estimated the crowds in the hundreds of thousands. But stone-throwing and insults erupted between Hariri supporters leaving the rally and Hezbollah backers in several Muslim neighborhoods of Beirut. Troops intervened to restore order.
"Hariri built Lebanon and made the country what it is. Every Lebanese should be here today," said Nahia Khalil, a 59-year-old-housewife, wearing a Lebanese flag as a head scarf.
Hariri's supporters expressed hope that his killers could eventually be brought to trial. A mixed Lebanese-international tribunal prepares to begin its work in the Netherlands on March 1.
Speakers also stressed the election's importance.
The June 7 election is "fateful ... and an occasion to raise the voice for a free, independent state that is capable of and responsible for running its affairs," said Saad Hariri, son of the former prime minister and the current majority leader in Parliament.
Hariri, a billionaire businessman, had close ties with Western leaders and was credited with helping rebuild Lebanon's capital after the 1975-1990 civil war. He had tried to limit neighboring Syria's influence over Lebanon, and many accused that country's leaders of involvement in his killing. Syria denies those accusations.
The outcry over Hariri's death forced Syria to withdraw troops it had in Lebanon since the early years of the civil war. Syria agreed last year to establish diplomatic relations with its neighbor in a step seen as further limiting Syrian dominance.
Saturday's crowds fell silent to mark the time of the bombing, interrupted only by the sound of church bells and Quranic verses in a show of Christian-Muslim unity.