BEIRUT (AP) – A massive crowd of flag-waving Lebanese filled a Beirut square Saturday to remember slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an occasion his supporters used to rally the people before parliamentary elections in which they are fighting to stay in power.
Four years after Hariri’s death in a truck bombing, no one has been brought to justice, and the country remains deeply divided over whether to follow the pro-Western path of Hariri’s supporters or the more radical pull of groups with ties to Iran and Syria.
The rally in Martyrs’ Square was primarily a display of political power in support of Hariri’s allies in the parliament’s pro-Western majority. Those parties, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, will face a tough election battle in June against rivals supported by the Hezbollah militant group and its Syrian and Iranian allies.
The election showdown reflects Lebanon’s enduring political and sectarian divides, which worsened after Hariri’s killing on Feb. 14, 2005, in an attack that also killed 22 other people. That division culminated in street clashes between Shiite Hezbollah gunmen and mainly Sunni pro-government groups in May of last year that brought the country to the edge of another civil war.
At Saturday’s rally, there was also some hope that Hariri’s killers could eventually be brought to trial, as a mixed Lebanese-international tribunal prepares to begin its work in the Netherlands on March 1.
Hariri had close ties with Western leaders and was credited with helping rebuild Lebanon’s capital after the 1975-1990 civil war. Before his death, he had tried to limit neighboring Syria’s influence over Lebanon, and many accused that country’s leaders of involvement in his killing. Syria denies those accusations.
Tens of thousands converged on the square Saturday where Hariri is buried, a few blocks from the seaside street where he was killed.
Some of the demonstrators held pictures of Hariri and his son and political heir, Saad. Others had stickers reading “We won’t forget you” on their shoulders. Hariri’s Future TV and his political movement estimated the crowds in the hundreds of thousands.
Nahia Khalil, a 59-year-old-housewife, drove two hours from the northeast to be at the square. “Hariri built Lebanon and made the country what it is. Every Lebanese should be here today,” she said, wearing a Lebanese flag as a head scarf.
The crowds, which were in a festive mood of song and drum beating, fell silent at 1 p.m. to mark the time of the bombing, interrupted only by the sound of church bells and Quranic verses in a show of Christian-Muslim unity. Speakers welcomed the Hariri tribunal and stressed the election’s importance.
The June 7 election, said Saad Hariri, is “fateful … and an occasion to raise the voice for a free, independent state that is capable of and responsible for running its affairs.”
Words of support for efforts to find Hariri’s killers also came from the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama. A White House statement Thursday said the United States “will continue to support the voices of peace and moderation in Lebanon, and hope that Lebanon continues down the path of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity that its citizens so strongly deserve.”
A billionaire businessman, Hariri served as prime minister for 10 years between 1992 and 2004, embarking on a massive effort to rebuild the country from civil war destruction.
Initially a Syrian ally, Hariri had begun seeking to limit its political and military power in his country. His killing sparked an outcry that forced Syria to withdraw troops it had in Lebanon since the early years of the civil war. Syria agreed last year to establish diplomatic relations with its neighbor in a step seen as further limiting Syrian dominance.