Hezbollah sit-in has Beirut at a standstill

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah supporters and their allies poured into the capital Friday in a mass protest that paralyzed the city center, laid siege to the prime minister's office and threatened an escalating campaign of civil disobedience until the U.S.-backed government collapses.

After sunset, thousands of men encircled the government palace where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his political allies have been holed up for days, fearful of assassination.

Shouting for Siniora to resign, the men pushed right up to the security checkpoints of razor wire, armed guards and tanks. Then they pitched tents, carried in water tanks and portable toilets and spread out prayer mats.

The men, who moved under strict directives from hundreds of Hezbollah security agents with walkie-talkies and matching baseball caps, vowed to keep up their siege until the government falls.

"We warned them," a man's voice boomed over a loudspeaker as the demonstrators ringed the hilltop government offices. "But they didn't listen."

The declaration of an open-ended sit-in has pushed the Shiite organization and the government into a precarious standoff, raising fears of street violence. Both sides say they are defending the nation against nefarious forces: Hezbollah and its allies say they have launched a peaceful revolution to overthrow an illegitimate government; the government says it faces a Syria-backed coup d'etat and that Lebanon's hard-won independence is at stake.

The scene was uncannily reminiscent of anti-Syria demonstrations that erupted here after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, father of today's leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims. The assassination was widely blamed on Syria.

Then, weeks of demonstrations in downtown Beirut felled Lebanon's Syria-backed government and forced Damascus to pull its soldiers out of Lebanon. An anti-Syria coalition led by Saad Hariri swept to power in national elections.

Now the onetime demonstrators are on the receiving end of a similar uprising.

Friday's demonstration was peaceful, but Hezbollah is a powerful Shiite Muslim party with a heavily armed militia -- and its campaign is just getting started. Hezbollah members have threatened to block major highways and seize control of ports and airports if the government doesn't step down.

"We will make disorder in this country," said Nabil Malim, a 29-year-old Shiite who took the bus north from the southern town of Nabatiyeh.

Hezbollah bused in supporters from all corners of the country; they were joined by followers of Gen. Michel Aoun, who is arguably Lebanon's most popular Christian leader, and members of Amal, another Shiite party.

Up to a quarter of the nation's population of about 4 million packed the streets of Beirut.

In a country where political factions compete bitterly to turn out larger crowds, the outpouring was an embarrassing challenge to the government's legitimacy. The opposition calls Siniora's government a tool of the U.S. Embassy and says Shiites and Christians are not fairly represented.

"I wish our prime minister and his ministers were here among us today rather than hiding behind army tanks and barbed wire," Aoun told the cheering crowd. "We consider that the only way out is the resignation of the Cabinet."

Siniora and his ministers remained steadfast.

"No matter how long they stay in the street ... this will not bring down the government," Hariri said.

For hours, the roads that run from the tony seaside city center to Beirut's scruffy southern suburbs were choked with people. They kept coming, down blacktop roads gleaming in the glare of afternoon sun, through a corridor of drab apartment blocks with laundry flapping from the balconies.

"We want to topple the government!" they yelled as they marched.

Flocks of women marching in black robes and head scarves; schoolgirls holding hands; groups of young men with the Lebanese flag knotted over their heads as bandannas; fathers who tucked their children behind the handlebars of their mopeds -- all were greeted by members of Hezbollah's security forces, who wore clipped-on badges that read, simply, "discipline."

The guards rifled through bags in search of weapons and, keen to prove the rally was inter-religious, ordered marchers to hide Hezbollah's yellow militia flags and pictures of Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Lebanese security forces guarded government buildings but steered clear of the demonstrators, leaving security in the hands of Hezbollah.

Members of the newly beefed-up Internal Security Forces, believed to be loyal to the Sunni-dominated government, were jeered and taunted by Hezbollah supporters.

Thousands of people, virtually all men, jammed the squares and parking lots overnight, sleeping in tents or huddled in thin blankets on the ground. Hezbollah anthems boomed from massive speakers; demonstrators banged on drums, burned their political signs to keep warm and smoked apple-flavored tobacco from water pipes they'd lugged from home.

"These men in the government were warlords during the civil war. They might do anything to disturb the stability of the demonstration," said Jihad Ali Farhat, a Shiite cleric who had traveled from the south Lebanon town of Zahrane.

"If I die here it will be for the sake of the country," he said. "This is a peaceful, social and cultural revolution."

The calls for Siniora's ouster tapped into the festering animosities against Sunni Muslims, as Shiite and Christian demonstrators complained that Sunnis held too much power in the government.

In a show of solidarity, the spiritual head of Lebanon's Sunnis, Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, spent Friday prayers with Siniora.

"We think the government only represents one faith, and that's Sunni," said Aboud Aboud, a 32-year-old Christian who sported a button with Nasrallah and Aoun's faces juxtaposed. "We won't leave until the government falls."

Common threads ran through the speech of the demonstrators, much of it gleaned directly from Nasrallah's instructions: They spoke about the need for a "national unity government" to replace Siniora's government.

Many insisted there would be no street violence, saying they were out to prove that Hezbollah, contrary to its militant image, was a sophisticated movement that could pull off a peaceful revolution.

"We have commands from Nasrallah saying that even if they attack us, we should not attack them back," said Youssef Ezzedinne, a carpenter who traveled with his family from the southern port city of Tyre. "We should show how civilized we are."

But other young men shrugged off Nasrallah's orders.

"He says this, but the people decide. Can he stop all the people?" said Awad Abanoun, 22, a student from Beirut's southern suburbs.

"Because peacefully, the government is not changing. Only violence will do it."

megan.stack@latimes.com

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