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Protests bring Lebanon to a halt

Times Staff Writer

Hezbollah and its allies paralyzed Lebanon on Tuesday, sending thousands of demonstrators to seize control of major roads, brawl with government supporters and choke the seaside capital in the acrid smoke of burning tires.

The swift seizure of the country’s roads took many here by surprise, and marked a major escalation in the militant group Hezbollah’s campaign to overthrow Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government. At least three people died and more than 100 were wounded as clashes flared around the country.

The opposition, dominated by the powerful Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, had called for a general strike Tuesday, and the roadblocks gave people little choice but to stay home.

The roads to Beirut’s airport were impassable, blocked by sand berms, garbage and roaring fires. Some flights were canceled, and arriving passengers languished at the airport.

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The roadblocks in the capital were being cleared overnight, but the opposition threatened further escalation if the government didn’t step down.

Hour after tense hour, the army and security services gave free rein to the protesters. While young men barricaded neighborhoods and halted cars to interrogate the drivers, soldiers and police officers stood by and watched. Security forces in riot gear lined some streets, and armored personnel carriers crunched over the rubble. But to the delight of some Lebanese and the disgust of others, they didn’t interfere.

“They are on our side,” crowed Kamal Yehiya, a 20-year-old Hezbollah supporter who was hurling rubble into a fire near downtown.

The blockade tapped into the deep well of tribal rage and sectarian animosities that seem to fester just beneath the surface in Lebanon.

“Welcome to hell,” said Mohammed Boukari, 29, who stood watching as his south Beirut neighborhood dissolved into a melee of religious taunts, gunfire and rock-throwing.

Sunnis, Shiites face off

On one side of the road, Sunni supporters of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora clambered onto the roof of a gas station, lobbed stones and cursed Shiite leaders. On the other side, young Shiite men responded in kind, waving the pipes and bedposts they carried as weapons and hollering with rage.

Clad in riot gear, soldiers raced through the streets between the two mobs, shooting into the air and blocking the young men from charging at one another.

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“We are from the same neighborhood. We are Lebanese,” Boukari said. “But look at this.”

Barricaded indoors, the government decried the opposition’s tactics as an attempted coup d’etat.

“This is not a strike. This is military action,” Cabinet minister Ahmed Fatfat told Al Arabiya satellite channel.

Speaking on Lebanese television, Siniora said the government was ready for talks with the opposition and called for parliament to convene.

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“The current explosive crisis needs to be dealt with quickly by moving the fights from the streets to the legitimate political institutions,” he said.

For more than 50 wintry days, Hezbollah and its allies have camped on the pavement downtown in a massive sit-in aimed at toppling the government. The demonstrators deride the government as an illegitimate tool of the United States and Israel.

But Siniora’s government has dug in its heels, vowing not to relinquish power. When hundreds of thousands of people flooded the capital to demand his ouster, he dismissed their calls as a coup attempt engineered by Syria and Iran, the main backers of Hezbollah.

“The opposition was well aware that it was running out of cards,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Hezbollah expert and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is perhaps their only remaining weapon.”

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In Washington, the Bush administration criticized the demonstrators and accused Syria of fueling the turmoil.

“These factions are trying to use violence, threats and intimidation to impose their political will on Lebanon,” said chief State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

But in the Lebanese capital, one of the many demonstrators at an intersection in front of Beirut’s museum explained her motivation as fires blazed around her.

“We have to do something to make them hear us, to make them know we exist,” said Natalie Rizek, 23, a medical student who supports popular Christian opposition leader Gen. Michel Aoun.

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“We tried everything,” she said. “They were continuing as if nothing was happening.”

Residents who ventured forth held tissues to their noses or wore surgical masks to shield against the black smoke that billowed through the streets.

“This is not democracy,” sputtered Noha Qaisi, a 48-year-old homemaker. “My kids are saying they’re suffocating from all the smoke inside.”

Premier alters plans

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As the capital smoldered around him, Siniora was forced to postpone his departure for an international donors conference in Paris. Supporters of the government have been banking on the Paris meeting to help Lebanon recover from the devastation of last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Like most events backed by Hezbollah, Tuesday’s demonstrations were carefully coordinated. Trucks loaded with tires were parked along the roadsides to feed the fires. At intersections, older men with walkie-talkies supervised the fire building. Young men on mopeds buzzed from one corner to the next, passing along news and instructions.

A red Volvo rolled slowly between stained apartment blocks, a loudspeaker strapped to its roof and the driver’s words echoing off the buildings:

“Starting now, and until our demands are met, the noble people of Lebanon must rise up,” he said. He closed, as if signing a letter, with a curt “Hezbollah.”

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Mindful of the risk of igniting Shiite-Sunni tensions, especially as a civil war rages in nearby Iraq, Hezbollah has tried to fight the perception that the push against the government is being led solely by Shiites.

It’s true that the old notion of a definitive Christian-Muslim split is now defunct; both religions are present on both sides of the political chasm, and some of the fiercest fighting erupted Tuesday among Christians allied with Hezbollah and those who back the government.

Corniche Mazraa, a boulevard in south Beirut that divides a predominantly Shiite neighborhood from a mainly Sunni area, degenerated into a scene of urban warfare as gangs from each neighborhood battled the army to get at their rivals across the street.

“If the government doesn’t fall, there will be a sectarian war,” said Ali Shihadi, a 23-year-old Shiite geography student. Behind him, men were smashing cinder blocks on the pavement, breaking them into rubble to hurl across the street. “Syria! Syria! Syria!” some of the Shiite men chanted.

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On the other side of the road, Sunni youths stopped hurling rocks long enough to hang the flag of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia from an electrical pole.

“Saddam, Saddam, Saddam,” chanted the young men, invoking the executed former president of Iraq, who was a Sunni. They thumped themselves on the head, mocking Shiite self-flagellation rites. They chanted for Siniora, beat a tambourine and danced wildly, waving their makeshift weapons.

“They want us to be ruled by Iran and Syria,” said Omar Senou, a 27-year-old photography clerk. “That will never happen, even if we have to cut throats.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Raed Rafei in Beirut contributed to this report.


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