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Hezbollah calls for mass protest in Beirut

The leader of the Hezbollah militant group, Hassan Nasrallah, said Thursday that Lebanon's Western-backed government had failed and he called for peaceful protests to force it to resign.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The leader of the Hezbollah militant group, Hassan Nasrallah, said Thursday that Lebanon's Western-backed government had failed and he called for peaceful protests to force it to resign.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s administration “has proven it is incompetent and has failed to fulfill its promises and achieve anything significant,” Nasrallah said in a broadcast on Hezbollah’s television station, Al-Manar.

The stations of Hezbollah and other opposition groups said the protest would begin on Friday at 3 p.m. in downtown Beirut, where Saniora’s embattled government has its headquarters.

Nasrallah, who is backed by Syria and Iran, accused Saniora's anti-Syrian government of representing only a certain portion of multi-sectarian Lebanon.

"Lebanon with its (sectarian) makeup cannot be administered by one side amid difficult internal conditions," Nasrallah said, adding that the answer was to form a broader-based Cabinet.

"Let us call for a national unity government," he said, repeating a phrase that has become identified with his call for Hezbollah and its allies to gain a veto-wielding share of the Cabinet.

After he spoke, men in pro-Hezbollah districts of Beirut fired guns into the air in support.

Security forces ready
The call came after weeks of political tension between pro-Syrian groups in the opposition, led by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, and anti-Syrian factions supporting the government, which has wide Western backing.

The prime minister and members of his Cabinet have been bracing for mass demonstrations for days. The security forces have deployed troops, barbed wire and armored vehicles outside the main government office complex, where the prime minister and some ministers have been sleeping in a guest house.

Opposition groups said in a statement that they “call on all the Lebanese of all sects and parties ... to gather peacefully and stage an open-ended sit-in to protest the absence of real political participation and to demand a national unity government, whose priority is to decide a new election law.”

They called on supporters to carry only the Lebanese flag and to avoid displaying party banners or posters.

Although the statement said the protest would be peaceful, any attempt by demonstrators to take over government buildings could lead to violence. Groups that support Saniora’s government have previously vowed to call counter-demonstrations.

Army Commander Michel Suleiman was quoted Thursday as having told his troops to be fully prepared to fulfil their role of “protecting freedom of expression and preventing riots and attacks on public and private property.”

Suleiman ordered soldiers to “keep the same distance from everyone and safeguard the security of all citizens, including the pro- and anti-government parties,” several newspapers reported. He also said they should “not to hesitate in intervening to prevent clashes between the two sides.”

Rising disquiet
Hezbollah, emboldened by its performance in its summer war with Israel, has been pushing for a bigger share of the Cabinet, demanding that the militant group and its allies acquire sufficient seats to veto decisions.

But the anti-Syrian majority in parliament, which backs Saniora, has rejected Hezbollah’s demands, prompting the resignation of a quarter of the Cabinet — five Shiite Muslims and one Christian — early this month.

Last week, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel was assassinated in a suburban Beirut street, renewing fears that the political crisis was carrying Lebanon back to the sectarian violence of the 1975-90 civil war.

Subsequently there has been scattered unrest in Christian areas of Beirut and Shiite Muslims have rioted in their neighborhoods.

The Cabinet’s approval Monday of a draft accord to create a tribunal to try suspects in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has widened the rift between anti- and pro-Syrian forces. The son of Hariri leads the anti-Syrian camp, which accuses Damascus of orchestrating the assassination — a charge that Syria has repeatedly denied.