Hezbollah calls protests in Lebanon to bring down government; PM remains defiant


Friday, December 1st 2006, 5:45 am
By: News On 6


BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Hundreds of heavily armed police and combat troops unfurled barbed wire and erected barricades around the Lebanese prime minister's office on Friday, girding for a large protest against the Western-backed leader.

Opposition groups led by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah bused supporters from around Lebanon to the demonstration in downtown Beirut, billed by some newspapers as the ``great showdown.'' Roads leading to Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's headquarters were closed off.

The heavy security, which included 16 armored personnel carriers, came amid fears the protests could turn into street clashes between the two sides or that Hezbollah supporters could try to storm Saniora's offices.

Schools in some areas were closed Friday. Others opened until noon to give students time to return home before the expected deluge of protesters. Many businesses in the city center were closed because of the tight security, but elsewhere banks remained opened.

Launching a long-threatened campaign to force Lebanon's U.S.-backed government from office, Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies on Thursday called for the demonstrations Friday followed by a wave of open-ended protests.

But a defiant Saniora vowed his government would not fall, warning in a nationally televised speech Thursday night that ``Lebanon's independence is threatened and its democratic system is in danger.''

The call for protests threatens to turn a political power struggle between pro- and anti-Syrian factions into a violent showdown in sharply divided Lebanon.

Ironically, Saniora asked Lebanese to show support by raising the Lebanese flag on their windows and balconies. Hezbollah's leader has called on protesters to also carry the same banner, the national red and white flag with the historic Cedar tree in its middle.

But both camps seemed wide apart on what kind of Lebanon they want.

Government supporters accuse Syria of being behind the Hezbollah campaign, trying to regain its lost influence in its smaller neighbor. Hezbollah and its allies, in turn, say the country has fallen under U.S. domination and that they have lost their rightful portion of power.

Hezbollah had threatened to call mass demonstrations unless it and its allies obtain a veto-wielding share of the Cabinet _ a demand that Saniora and the anti-Syrian parties have rejected. The aim of the protests is to generate enough popular pressure to further paralyze the government, forcing it to step down.

Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassim, made it clear the fight is against ``American tutelage'' and said the protest action will continue until the government falls.

``We will not let you sell Lebanon, we will protect the constitution and people of Lebanon,'' Kassim said on television Friday, addressing Saniora.

Christian leader and Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun also warned Saniora that he was reaching his end and urged him to resign.

Hezbollah has proven in past rallies that it can draw hundreds of thousands of its Shiite supporters into the streets.

The United States has made Lebanon a key front in its attempts to rein in Syria and its ally, regional powerhouse Iran. President Bush warned earlier this week that the two countries were trying to destabilize Lebanon.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, called for peaceful protests. From the other camp, the head of the anti-Syrian bloc in parliament, Saad Hariri, said his supporters should not hold counter-demonstrations.

``Tomorrow is a day when we will show our resolve,'' Hariri told The Associated Press Thursday. Stil, he vowed to be ``strong with the government. ... We will not accept to be part of an axis of Syria and Iran.''

Walid Jumblatt, a senior anti-Syrian pro-government figure, joined Hariri's calls for supporters to remain calm.

``Let them go down on the streets ... We can wait, a month, two months. When they want dialogue, we are ready,'' Jumblatt told reporters on Friday.

In announcing the protests, Nasrallah said that Saniora's government ``has proven it is incompetent and has failed to fulfill its promises and achieve anything significant.''

Tensions are high in Lebanon after a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures over the past two years, including a prominent Christian government minister gunned down last month and Hariri's father, former prime minister Rafik Hairi, who was killed in a February 2005 bomb blast.

The political fight has paralyzed the government, with anti-Syrians dominating the parliament and the Saniora Cabinet pitted against the pro-Syrian president and parliament speaker.

The battle is a fallout from the summer war between Hezbollah and Israel that ravaged parts of Lebanon. The guerrilla force's strong resistance against Israeli troops sent its support among Shiites skyrocketing, emboldening it to grab more political power. Hezbollah also feels Saniora did not do enough to support it during the fight.

Pro-government groups, in turn, resent Hezbollah for sparking the fight by snatching two Israeli soldiers, dragging Lebanon into a conflict with the powerful Israeli army.