Saniora won't quit despite pressure

US, Jordan criticize Hizbullah protest in downtown Beirut.

Hizbullah rally 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hizbullah rally 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora insisted Friday night that he would refuse to succumb to protests held by Hizbullah supporters earlier Friday calling for the US-backed premier to resign, during a conversation with French presidential candidate Segolene Royal, who was visiting in Lebanon as part of her Middle East tour. The demonstration caused brought on criticism from both the US and Jordan soon after its cessation. For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here
  • A struggle for normalcy in Lebanon (Up Front feature by 'Post' correspondent in Beirut) The US State Department expressed grave concern over the matter. "The protest's aim was to bring down a legitimate, democratically elected government. I do not think that anyone believes threats and violence are the democratic way to change a government," said the State Department's deputy spokesman, Tom Casey. The US pointed a blaming finger at Syria and Iran for assisting in the latest uproar and efforts to overthrow the government, Israel Radio later reported. Jordan's King Abdullah talked over telephone with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to urge the Lebanese people to "safeguard their unity" which appeared endangered by the massive demonstrations, according to a royal court statement. The monarch, who is currently on an official visit to India, "underscored the importance of the Lebanese protecting their unity at a time when they are facing great challenges", the statement said. "Jordan is keen not to see the differences of opinions among various political groups leading to spillovers that affect the cohesion of the Lebanese society," the king said. Some 800,000 protesters from Hizbullah and its pro-Syrian allies descended on downtown Beirut on Friday in a peaceful but noisy protest to force the resignation of Saniora, who was holed up in his office ringed by hundreds of police and combat troops. The protesters created a sea of Lebanese flags that blanketed downtown and spilled onto the surrounding streets. Many chanted slogans demanding Saniora quit amid the deafening sound of Hizbullah's revolutionary and nationalist songs, but no clashes were immediately reported. The pro-Syria and Iranian-backed Hizbullah and its allies are struggling to obtain veto-wielding power in the country's Cabinet - a demand Saniora has rejected. The guerrilla group hopes the mass demonstration, which police estimated at 800,000 but Hizbullah claimed was larger, will generate enough popular pressure to further paralyze Saniora's government, forcing it to step down. In New York, US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton labeled the demonstrations as part of "part of the Iran-Syria inspired coup d'etat." "We obviously hope the demonstrations will be peaceful. People have a right to express their political opinions, but in terms of this being part of the Iran-Syria inspired coup d'etat against the government of Lebanon we're obviously quite concerned about it," Bolton said. A demonstration last week for a slain anti-Syrian politician also drew hundreds of thousands of people to downtown, filling Martyr's Square. But Friday's appeared larger, as protesters swarmed not only that square but others as well as nearby streets and parking lots. Hizbullah and its allies also called for an open-ended protest and supporters plan to set up camp around the clock in tents that were erected on a road outside Saniora's office and in a downtown square. "I wish that the prime minister and his ministers were among us today, not hiding behind barbed wire and army armored carriers. He who has his people behind him does not need barbed wire," Michel Aoun, a Christian leader and Hizbullah ally, told the crowd. Aoun called the Saniora government "corrupt" and demanded that the prime minister resign. Hizbullah has tried to depict the protest as rallying all Lebanese, not just its supporters and the crowd included some leftists, Sunni supporters and Christians. The militant group urged demonstrators to wave only the red and white Lebanese flag with its green cedar tree - a stark contrast to past rallies by the group, which saw huge numbers of yellow Hizbullah flags that display a fist and Kalashnikov. Hizbullah's leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has not made a public appearance since a September rally for the militant group, could not be seen Friday. But his speeches, blared through loudspeakers, drove the crowd wild with cheers. Inside the prime minister's building, Saniora went about his schedule, in what appeared to be a tactic to ignore the throngs outside. A day earlier, a defiant Saniora vowed his government would not fall but warned that "Lebanon's independence is threatened and its democratic system is in danger." Heavily armed soldiers and police closed all roads leading to Saniora's sprawling headquarters that overlooked the massive rally. Barbed wire and other barricades were placed around the stone-walled building to prevent any protests from spilling over during what some newspapers have billed as the "great showdown" between the government and the opposition. Hizbullah's security men also formed two lines between the protesters and the security forces to prevent clashes. Saniora supporters accuse Syria of being behind Hizbullah's campaign, trying to regain its lost influence in its smaller neighbor. Hizbullah and its allies, in turn, say the country has fallen under US domination and that they have lost their rightful portion of power. The group's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassim, made it clear on Friday that the fight was against "American tutelage" and said the protest action will continue until the government falls. At the rally, some protesters occasionally cried "Death to Israel" and "We want Feltman's government to go," in reference to Lebanon's US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. "We don't want the (US) Embassy inside the Prime Ministry," said demonstrator Mahmoud Zeineddin. The United States has made Lebanon and keeping Saniora in power a key front in its attempts to rein in Syria and its ally, regional powerhouse Iran. US President George W. Bush warned earlier this week that the two countries were trying to destabilize Lebanon. Lebanon has witnessed a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures over the past two years, including a prominent Christian government minister gunned down last week and former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a February 2005 bomb blast. The battle is a fallout from the summer war between Hizbullah and Israel that ravaged parts of Lebanon. The guerrilla force's strong resistance against Israel sent its support among Shi'ites skyrocketing, emboldening it to grab more political power and make alliances with some Christians. Hizbullah also feels Saniora did not do enough to support it during the fight. Pro-government groups, in turn, resent Hizbullah for sparking the fight by snatching two Israeli soldiers, dragging Lebanon into war with Israel.