March 13, 2005 | New York Sun

Lebanese Staging Rallies Demanding ‘the Truth’ Behind Hariri Murder

BEIRUT – With a crucial democratic protest planned for today, members of Lebanon's opposition held a vigil last evening, setting out candles across a big swathe of downtown Martyrs' Square to spell out in letters of flame, in Arabic and English, what they are seeking: “The Truth.”

These demonstrators want the truth about who was behind the bomb blast that on February 14 killed Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. Today's protest will mark the four-week anniversary of his murder, which ignited Lebanon's democratic uprising. The turnout will be closely watched worldwide, seen as the democratic opposition's rejoinder to two rallies staged this past week by the terrorist group Hezbollah, which has now hitched its wagon – or, some fear, its rocket launchers – to the Cedar Revolution.

Following the American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the massive Iraqi election turnout this past January, the balance is shifting in the Arab world. In Lebanon, which has emerged over the past month as the new frontline of change, Hariri's death – which many blame on Syria – was not the prime cause. It was more, as one opposition member puts it, “the drop of water that finally burst the dam.” The truth these protesters are after goes well beyond finding out who, precisely, set up the bomb blast that in killing Hariri blew out windows and shut down buildings still under repair hundreds of yards from the crater.

After a generation spent as a ward of totalitarian Syria, after a long string of murders and disappearances that continued even after the Civil War ended in 1990, after years in which the Baathist apparatus of Syria has wound its way deep into Lebanese politics and cast a long shadow over daily life, many Lebanese want the truth that comes with living in a free society.

“Something magnificent is being done in Lebanon. It is being reborn,” says parliamentarian Muhammad Kabbani, a member of the late Hariri's party, and one of more than 10,000 protesters who gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square this past Saturday to hold up red, white, and green placards to make a huge, human Lebanese flag. One of the organizers of the protest, Alain Lahoud – an anti-Syrian cousin of the country's pro-Syrian president – provides a tour of the demonstrators' graffiti, including a trash can on which someone has scrawled the name of the head the Syrian intelligence service in Lebanon, inviting him to deposit himself within. “They have broken the wall of fear,” says Mr. Lahoud “They are tasting freedom.”

To what extent the Lebanese will get more than just a taste is now the subject of hot debate and frenzied activity, from the coffeehouses of Beirut to the diplomatic huddles at the United Nations. Under the combined pressure of protests in the streets of Beirut, last year's United Nations Resolution 1559, requiring Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, and big public nudges from America, France, and even Saudi Arabia, (where Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, held dual citizenship), Syria has pulled a few thousand troops out of Lebanon, so far still leaving behind some 9,000-10,000, plus some untold number of secret police. U.N. special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen has been clocking up frequent flier miles to report to the world that Syria will pull out of Lebanon entirely – though there is as yet no public timetable or deadline.

The tragedy would be if the world community, having finally noticed that the totalitarian regime of Syria was desperately unhealthy for Lebanon, should now give a pass to the terrorists of Hezbollah. Having watched the democratic opposition gain momentum for the first three weeks following Hariri's death, Hezbollah leaders last week stole some tactics from the democrats, wrapped themselves for the first time in the Lebanese flag, held a huge rally last Tuesday in Beirut and a smaller one yesterday in southern Lebanon, and are now singing the national anthem while paradoxically parading pictures of President Assad. By the time Hezbollah held its second demonstration, all of five days after its sudden adoption of the Lebanese flag, experts both in Lebanon and abroad were already deep in discussion over whether, as the New York Times put it in an editorial yesterday morning, Hezbollah leader “Sheikh Nasrallah is not above changing his stripes, if it is politically expedient.”

Hezbollah's tactics bear a closer resemblance to the manner in which communist front groups once infiltrated democratic organizations than they do to any sudden conversion to democratic ways. At yesterday's Hezbollah rally in the terrorist group's southern stronghold of Nabatiyeh, talk of freedom and independence for Lebanon was framed in such terms as hatred for America; threatening posters aimed at opposition member Gebran Tueni, editor of Lebanon's leading democratic newspaper, and effusive thanks to the Syrian regime for all it has done for the Lebanese people – by which Hezbollah basically means Syria's interest in supporting Hezbollah's attacks on Israel.

In the thick of the Hezbollah crowd, beneath the sea of suddenly adopted Lebanese flags, a young English teacher, Hawraa Ghandour, chats with this reporter about the need for peaceful dialogue and a free Lebanon, then interrupts herself to raise a fist and chant along with the crowd, “Death to America, Death to Israel.” It would be easier to dismiss such chants were it not for Hezbollah's grim record of murder and murderous doctrine over many years, stretching back to the bombing of the American Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, 1983, and continuing forward to the current broadcasts of Islamist hatred from its own TV station in Beirut.

On the edge of the same Hezbollah rally, 33-year-old Sheik Yusuf Hareb, schooled in Iran, which founded and helps fund Hezbollah, says his prime concern is “to make sure that we support 100% the weapons of Hezbollah.” He adds that he is “very worried” about the possibility of another civil war in Lebanon – an intriguing concern, given that Hezbollah – which styles itself as a “resistance” force – is the only militia to have refused to disarm.



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