BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of thousands of protesters from Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian opposition allies massed Friday in downtown Beirut seeking to force the resignation of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who was holed up in his office ringed by hundreds of police and combat troops.
The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and its allies mobilized their bases for the protest, arranging to bus supporters from all over Lebanon and handing out free gasoline coupons to people in remote regions.
The crowd, which police estimated at 800,000, created a sea of Lebanese flags that blanketed downtown. Hezbollah officials put the number at 1 million — one-fourth of Lebanon’s population.
Saniora went about his schedule in what appeared to be a tactic to ignore the throngs that quickly filled the streets. With heavy traffic reported on highways leading downtown, pro-government factions urged calm.
“Saniora out! We want a free government!” protesters shouted through loudspeakers. The crowd roared in approval amid the deafening sound of Hezbollah revolutionary and nationalist songs. “We want a clean government,” read one placard, in what has become the opposition’s motto.
Fear of violence
Heavily armed soldiers and police had closed all roads to downtown, feverishly unfurling barbed wire and placing barricades.
Despite Hezbollah’s assurances the protests will be peaceful, the heavy security came amid fears the protests may turn into clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian factions or that Hezbollah supporters could try to storm Saniora’s government headquarters.
Hezbollah’s security men, donning caps, formed two lines between the protesters and the security forces to prevent clashes.
Launching a long-threatened campaign to force Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government from office, Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies said the demonstration would be followed by a wave of open-ended protests.
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 war with Israel.
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.”
Saniora asked Lebanese to show support by raising the Lebanese flag on their windows and balconies. Hezbollah’s leader also called on protesters to 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.
'Stirring up discord'
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.
Tension have been running high between Sunni Muslims, who generally support the anti-Syrian government, and Shiites, who lead the pro-Syrian opposition, and Lebanon’s Christians, who are divided between the two.
In a stark sign of the divide, the spiritual leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, gave Friday prayers at the prime minister’s headquarters in a show of support for Saniora, a Sunni.
“Fear has gripped the Lebanese,” Kabbani said, appealing for the protests to end. “The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but trying to overthrow the government in the street is a call for stirring up discord among people, and we will not accept this.”
Hezbollah had threatened to call for 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 has proven in past rallies that it can draw hundreds of thousands of its Shiite supporters into the streets.
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.
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 the protests to be peaceful. From the other camp, the head of the anti-Syrian bloc in parliament, Saad Hariri, said his supporters should not hold counter-demonstrations.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese also flooded the downtown area last week after Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel was shot dead to show their support for Saniora’s government.
Lebanon has had a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in the past two years, including a prominent Christian government minister gunned down last week and Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a February 2005 bombing.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.