|Mass tributes honor Hariri, Mughniyeh
|'Our hand is extended' to the opposition
Hundreds of thousands of government supporters braved bad weather to rally in Downtown Beirut on Thursday to commemorate the passage of three years since former Premier Rafik Hariri's assassination.
Demonstrators came from across the country to converge on Martyrs Square, where like last year, March 14 supporters had to share space with their rivals in the opposition, whose tents have occupied the upper half of the square since December 2006 in a protest to demand more say in the government.
"Lebanon's enemies are trying to assassinate our country. Israel tried to do so in 2006 and so did the Israeli product known as the Syrian regime," Hariri said. "This regime has been at truce with Israel for the last 34 years, preventing the Syrian people from launching any form of resistance to liberate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights."
"This regime is dividing the Palestinians and trying to drag the resistance in Lebanon into a civil war that will destroy the country," he added.
He also reached out to the opposition, telling the audience that "our hand is extended and will remain extended, no matter what the difficulties."
Referring to a planned Arab League summit in March in Damascus, Hariri said "there will be no value to any summit in the absence of a Lebanese president."
The country has been without a president since Emile Lahoud's term ended in November without rival parties electing a successor. The parties have agreed on electing Suleiman, but are at odds over other issues. Hariri told "national partners" to end the presidential vacuum by electing the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman.
The Lebanese Army, which took exceptional security measures starting late Wednesday, stretched its presence to cover different areas in the capital during the demonstration.
The army also blocked main roads in Beirut in an attempt to prevent demonstrators from walking into areas that are known to be strongholds for some opposition parties.
The intensified security measures also took into account people coming from different areas in and outside Beirut to participate in the funeral of senior Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus late Tuesday.
The funeral kicked off at 2:30 p.m., only half an hour after the March 14 rally ended. Local press reports said March 14 Forces intended to end their rally at 2 p.m. in a sign of respect to people participating in Mughniyeh's funeral.
Army measures did not stop government and opposition partisans from clashing in some areas in Beirut. A group of Hariri supporters, marching back from the rally, met with Shiite supporters of Hizbullah and the Amal Movement in the areas of Barbour and Basta.
The two sides threw rocks at each other before the army and Internal Security Forces interfered to end the scuffle, which damaged a number of cars.
Meanwhile, the United States marked Hariri's murder on Thursday by reiterating support for the governing coalition.
"The US shares your sorrow, but also your hope," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "Our commitment to you and your chosen government is unshakeable. We and the international community will not rest until your calls for peace, justice and freedom have been answered."
Rice also pledged to double the US contribution to fund the international tribunal investigating Hariri's death to $14 million.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon marked the anniversary by reaffirming the world body's resolve to help Beirut establish the truth and bring those responsible to justice. A UN statement said Ban "continues with determination to prepare for the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, convinced that impunity must not prevail and that the tribunal process cannot be reversed."
"This solemn anniversary comes at a perilous moment for Lebanon," Ban spokeswoman Michele Montas said. "The secretary general believes there could be no greater homage paid to the memory of Rafik Hariri than for the parties in Lebanon to redouble their efforts to achieve national reconciliation and to ensure the stability, security and prosperity for which Rafik Hariri worked so hard during his lifetime."
Nasrallah accuses Israel of widening war
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah lashed out at Israel on Thursday, accusing it of having assassinated senior Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeh and warning that if the Jewish state wanted "open war," the resistance was ready to respond.
In a speech to mourners at Mughniyeh's funeral in the Beirut suburb of Rweiss, Nasrallah stressed the fact that the deadly car bombing had taken place in Damascus and therefore widened the theater of confrontation with Israel.
"Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, then let the whole world listen: Let this war be open," the Hizbullah leader told the crowd.
Tacking internal issues at the end of his speech, Nasrallah said "extending one's hand after a session of insults cannot be taken seriously," a reference to earlier remarks by the leader of the parliamentary majority, MP Saad Hariri. "Our hand will remain extended no matter what difficulties and conspiracies there are," Hariri had said at a rally in central Beirut to mark the third anniversary of his father's assasination.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a sharp critic of Hizbullah, said the majority would not succumb to what he called opposition efforts to deliver Lebanon "to the Iranian-Syrian black evil world."
Nasrallah said he would not respond "to this useless and futile session of insults," adding that Hizbullah "will never accept that Lebanon be partitioned or that Lebanon become an Israeli or American land."
"The blood of Imad Mughniyeh will contribute to the disappearance of the Jewish state," said Nasrallah. "You killed him outside our natural battleground," he added. "Our battleground with you is on Lebanese territory and you have overstepped the border."
"The July war is not over, it is ongoing and no cease-fire was ever declared," he said of the summer 2006 conflict with Israel, which ended with a UN-brokered cessation of hostilities, but not an official cease-fire.
A Hizbullah spokesman said at least 20,000 people, including Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, came to pay their respects to Mughniyeh.
In Israel, which welcomed Mughniyeh's killing but has denied involvement, Army Radio said Nasrallah was threatening Israeli targets abroad.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that Nasrallah's speech was "concerning."
"Quite clearly Hizbullah has a long record of carrying out violent acts, acts of terrorism around the globe," he said.
Iranian leaders mourned Mughniyeh as a "great man" and accused Israel of having ordered his death.
The Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both sent personal condolences to Nasrallah, Iranian media reported.
"Dear brother ... I congratulate and offer my condolences on this great martyrdom to you, his family, the Hizbullah youth and all Lebanese," Khamenei said in his message. "It should make the Lebanese people proud to have given the world such great men in the fields of seeking freedom and fighting cruelty," he added.
Khamenei repeated Iran's accusation that Israel had a hand in Mughniyeh's death, and warned of an increase in resistance against the Jewish state.
"The bloodthirsty Zionist criminals should know that the pure blood of martyrs like Mughniyeh will create hundreds more like Mughniyeh," Khamenei said in a message read out on state television.
"It will increase resistance against corruption and atrocities twofold," he added.
Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly courted controversy by predicting Israel is doomed to disappear, said the killing showed the Jewish state had lost any reason to exist.
"The occupiers of Jerusalem ... have lost the reason for their existence and such crimes can only shorten their filth-filled and corrupt lives," Ahmadinejad said, according to the ISNA news agency.
The United States accuses Iran, along with Syria, of arming and financing Hizbullah, as well as working to destabilize Lebanon in its current political crisis.
The Daily Star