BEIRUT, (AP) – Thousands of flag waving Lebanese gathered in Beirut’s main square Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
As in previous years, tens of thousands of people from across the country are expected to take part despite a serious rift within the ranks of the pro-Western ruling coalition, now headed by the slain Hariri’s son, the current prime minister.
It also comes after Prime Minister Saad Hariri reconciled with Damascus, whom he has openly accused of killing his father in the 2005 Valentine’s Day truck bombing. The 40-year-old Hariri now heads a unity government which includes the Syrian-backed former opposition.
Rafik Hariri had close ties with Western leaders and was credited with helping rebuild Lebanon’s capital after the 1975-1990 civil war. In the last few months before his assassination, he had tried to limit Syria’s influence over Lebanon, and many accused Syria of involvement in his killing. Syria denies those accusations.
His death saw the rise of a US- and Saudi-backed alliance that became known as the March 14 coalition, named after a day of massive anti-Syrian protests dubbed the “Cedar Revolution.”
The demonstrations eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country, ending a 29-year military presence.
Sunday’s rally in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square is an attempt by Saad Hariri and his allies to regain some of the political momentum lost following a major rift within its ranks.
Druse leader Walid Jumblatt — once a key figure in the March 14 alliance and a vehement critic of Syria who even called for President Bashar’s Assad’s overthrow — quit the Western-backed coalition in August and moved closer to the rival Hezbollah-led camp.
He now calls for “distinctive relations” with Syria and says he’s prepared to also visit Damascus.
Jumblatt grudgingly said he will accompany Hariri to Sunday’s rally but, will not be one of the speakers.
Jumblatt’s defection, as well as Hariri’s landmark visit to Syria in December, gave the impression of a weakening alliance, and Sunday’s rally is seen as an occasion to try and regroup.
Hariri said in a televised interview this week that the massive rally would prove that the March 14 coalition “still exists.”
“We will show that we want to continue in the path of Rafik Hariri,” he said.