|Healthy crowd marks Hariri anniversary
|Some government loyalists lash out at opposition, but others adopt more 'moderate' tone
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese converged on Beirut from across the country on Wednesday to mark the second anniversary of Rafik Hariri's assassination and demonstrate support for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government.
From behind bullet-proof glass, pro-government leaders took turns paying tribute to the slain premier and calling for the establishment of an international tribunal to try the assassins of Hariri's and several others.
They were backed by US President George W. Bush.
"The United States joins the Lebanese people in demanding the truth behind ... Hariri's murder and calling for the establishment of a special tribunal for Lebanon to bring to justice those who murdered Rafik Hariri and others who stood for Lebanese sovereignty and independence," he said in a statement released by the White House.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of yesterday's bus bombings outside Beirut," the statement added. "The evil perpetrators of these attacks will not silence the Lebanese people's demands for justice and democracy in an independent Lebanon.
"The Lebanese people's greatest tribute to Rafik Hariri, Minister Basil Fuleihan, and others who gave their lives for a free Lebanon, would be to come together across sectarian divides to build the free, stable, and prosperous Lebanon that Prime Minister Rafik Hariri dedicated his life to create," said Bush.
French President Jacques Chirac and Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay also paid tribute to Hariri and expressed support for Siniora.
Bush's statement came a few hours after Downtown was flooded with national and party flags. Chants against the opposition, Syria and President Emile Lahoud once again echoed through the streets.
"Siniora will be staying, but you won't," sang the demonstrators, just inches from a heavily fortified razor-wire border placed by the Lebanese Army to separate the crowd from the nearby opposition sit-in that has continued since December 1.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," MP Saad Hariri told the crowd for "honoring" the memory of his father.
Thousand of balloons bearing the trademark blue hue of the Future Movement, founded by Rafik Hariri, were released into the air as his son arrived.
Church bells tolled and mosque minarets blared at exactly 12:55 p.m., the time when a powerful blast killed Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005.
"You arrived to this blessed Martyrs' Square despite all the attempts to terrorize and frighten you away," said Saad Hariri.
Security was tight, with thousands of soldiers and Internal Security Forces troopers deployed around the rally after two bombs ripped through two minibuses on Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding 23 others in the first direct attack on civilians in a country reeling from two years of political assassinations.
Defense Minister Elias Murr vowed that he would "personally" improve security.
"We will be changing the makeup of the security apparatus as the current security status of the country can't go on like this," Murr said after a meeting with US Ambassador Jeffery Feltman.
Later Wednesday, clashes were reported in Ersal, near the Syrian border in the Bekaa.
According to security sources, demonstrators returning from the rally were attacked with stones thrown by unknown assailants, leaving 10 people injured.
"The international tribunal is the only way for any solution," Saad Hariri said, drawing cheers from the crowd. The court "will stop the cycle of terrorism, blood and assassination that has struck our country for the past 30 years," he added.
The international tribunal remains one of the main obstacles in the political deadlock.
The Hizbullah-led opposition has been stalling the tribunal's ratification in Parliament, insisting on first amending and setting parameters to the tribunal's jurisdiction.
"We are ready to extend our hand for dialogue ... despite all the coup attempts against the government," Saad said.
Siniora, a long-time confidant and friend of the late Hariri, arrived early in Martyrs' Square, visiting Hariri's grave.
Siniora was accompanied by his wife and several MPs. Hariri's sister, MP Bahiya Hariri, and Saad came separately to the grave and prayed.
Anti-Syrian sentiments were high among the demonstrators, with many chanting anti-Syrian and anti-Hizbullah slogans or carrying signs such as: "God willing, 1,000 kilos on your head, Bashar and [President Emile] Lahoud."
One of the harshest speeches was delivered by MP Walid Jumblatt, who described Syrian President Bashar Assad as a "snake that all snakes flee from, the missing link, the whale that the seas spit out, a liar, a beast and a tyrant to end all tyrants."
"We will not surrender in the face of terrorism, in the face of authoritarian parties be they Syrian or not," the Druze leader said after reciting verse by Syrian poet Nizar Qabani condemning a "tyrant leader."
"We promise ... that the international tribunal will come and will be punishing you with a death sentence," he said.
Addressing Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Jumblatt said: "Better to give the army the weapons and rockets, and your allies the hay and wheat to chew."
Jumblatt was referring to a truck loaded with ammunition camouflaged by layers of hay that was seized by the army last week; Hizbullah has claimed the materiel as demanded that it be returned.
"There will be no weapons except for those that are under the Lebanese state's control," said Jumblatt.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea also vowed that there would be no weapons except "for those under the Lebanese Army's command."
"The Lebanese Army is the resistance, the Lebanese government is the resistance, all the Lebanese people are the resistance," said Geagea.
"We will not bow. We will not succumb. We will not surrender. We will fear nothing. And we will not back off," he shouted. "We'll chase criminals throughout the world."
Addressing Lahoud, Geagea said: "You will ultimately go into the garbage bin of history ... and the Lebanese people will regain their palace and their presidency."
March 14 Forces MP Butros Harb pointed toward the "electrical border" separating the opposition from loyalists and called for its removal "together."
"Let us move the border together all the way down to the South and place it against Israel," he said, extending his hand to the opposition.
Without naming them, Shiite cleric Ali Amin of Tyre criticized both main Shiite parties, Hizbullah and Amal, for failing to compromise with the government. He referred to their failure to ratify the Hariri tribunal and said it was "strange" to oppose justice.
"A country can't survive and move forward without justice," said Amin.
Hariri's widow delivered a special Valentine's Day tribute to her late husband over the speakers, in which she said: "My partner, my husband, my lover, you were never an ordinary man, you were a state in a man."
"I am still learning how to live without you ... and can only visit you through my prayers," she added.
Other speakers focused on the opposition forces' "getting off the streets" and returning to dialogue in order to negotiate a solution to the standoff.
Former President Amin Gemayel, in an address read by MP Antoine Ghanem, urged a return to dialogue as the only way to preserve Lebanon's unity.
"Let us return to the word of compromise for the sake of this country's future," said Ghanem.
Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad slammed the Assad regime for "trying to topple the Cedar revolution" but vowed that pro-government supporters would continue their struggle to achieve "victory."
MP Ghassan Tueni, that father of slain anti-Syrian journalist and MP Gebran Tueni said the international tribunal should try those who committed "crimes against humanity."
He also said that Lebanon will remain steadfast against "plots and assassinations."
The head of the Democratic Renewal Movement, former MP Nassib Lahoud, declared: "Let us clear all our squares of demonstrations and finalize a national solution."
Minister of Public Works and Transport Mohammad Safadi seconded Lahoud's call, saying: "We don't want a victor or a vanquished."
The Daily Star