Lebanon: One year since Hariri murder

Downtown Beirut closed off to allow thousands to protest against Syria

hariri poster 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
hariri poster 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Thousands of Lebanese waving flags and shouting anti-Syrian slogans massed in a central Beirut square Tuesday to commemorate the first anniversary of the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri, answering a call by anti-Syrian groups aiming to show their popular strength amid deep political divisions. Thousands of troops and policemen, backed by armored vehicles, sealed off Beirut's downtown area to provide security and guarded approaches to the Lebanese capital, where organizers hoped hundreds of thousands would gather.
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The government gave schools the day off and businesses closed. Thousands began gathering by mid-morning, carrying Lebanese flags and pictures of Hariri. Women wearing Islamic headscarves and conservative robes joined young women in tight jeans and families. Some wearing the blue scarves of Hariri's Future group took time to pray or place flowers at the grave. Some carried signs calling for "The Truth" and shouted the name of Hariri's son and political heir, Saad Hariri. Others carried placards critical of Syria and its president, Bashar Assad. "Isn't it enough, Bashar?" said one, listing the names of anti-Syrian Lebanese who have been slain in other bombings in the last year. "Yes, for the Syrian people. No to [Syrian] intelligence terrorism," read another. The demonstration, on the central Martyrs' Square next to Hariri's grave, was expected to climax shortly after midday - the time when a huge truck bomb exploded on a downtown seaside street as his motorcade drove by a year ago, killing him and 20 others. The main pro-Syrian Shi'ite Muslim groups, Hezbollah and Amal, were not taking part in the demonstration, which was expected to be largely dominated by Sunni Muslims from Hariri's sect and by Christian and Druse allies. Amal is holding its own commemoration later Tuesday in southern Lebanon. Amal and Hezbollah, who are represented in the Cabinet, have been locked in a power struggle with the government's anti-Syrian majority. Anti-Syrian groups are looking for a repetition of a March 14 protest in which about 1 million flag-waving Lebanese converged on Martyrs' Square to demand the Syrian army leave Lebanon. Syria's troops left in April under international pressure, and a UN probe into Hariri's murder has already implicated top Syrian and allied Lebanese security officials. But anti-Syrian groups have continued to accuse Syria of interfering in Lebanese affairs and carrying out a campaign of bombings and assassinations in the last year that has killed other 11 people, including three prominent anti-Syrians. Damascus has denied involvement in the Hariri murder and other attacks. Before the troop pullout, Syria had dominated Lebanon with its army and security services for nearly three decades, first entering in 1976 to quell a civil war that lasted another 14 years. The Syrian army stayed after the war ended in 1990, controlling the country's political and military institutions. Saad Hariri, the slain premier's son and head of the largest parliamentary bloc, returned to Beirut on Sunday - after months of self-exile in Saudi Arabia and France for fear of assassination - and urged the Lebanese to demonstrate. "The Lebanese people must show the entire world that we reject any tutelage, any oppression and any crime," he said in a television interview on the popular LBC TV station late Monday. "The message that must be conveyed tomorrow is that we refuse to have our independence and freedom threatened." The demonstration was carried live by the Lebanese TV stations of groups that support the protest, but neither Hezbollah nor Amal TV stations carried live broadcasts, opting for a special anniversary program. Syria's official media also did not broadcast live footage from the Beirut demonstration. "We want all the truth," headlined one front-page editorial in Al-Thawra newspaper, a reference to Syria's claim it was being unfairly accused in the murder. Army and police checkpoints were keeping vehicles away and providing protection, unlike in some protests last year when security forces tried to block protesters. Security forces searched men and women arriving at the square, apparently fearing explosives. The high security also was to avoid repetition of a February 5 demonstration that turned into a riot outside the Danish mission in Beirut. In that protest, Muslim extremists set fire to a building housing the mission to protest the publication of cartoons by a Danish newspaper of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. The UN investigation into Hariri's murder, which continues, has already determined that the assassination could not have been carried out without the involvement of Syrian intelligence and Lebanese allies in the security services. UN investigators have questioned top Syrian security officials in Vienna, including the last Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon and have asked to interview Assad. A former Syrian vice president has said Assad had threatened Hariri at a meeting, months before the assassination. But Assad has denied that. Unlike last year's protests, when a pro-Syrian administration attempted but failed to stop the protests, the same groups that called Tuesday's demonstrations are now in control of the government. But although they control Parliament and the government, they have been unable to fully consolidate their power nor force the resignation of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.