BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese flooded downtown Beirut to mourn a slain Christian politician and vent anger at Syria, gearing up for a potentially explosive fight over power with the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and other allies of Damascus.
Church bells tolled and women threw flowers and rice on Pierre Gemayel’s coffin, draped in the flag of his Phalange Party, as it was passed hand to hand over the dense crowd of mourners outside St. Georges Cathedral on Thursday.
Nearby in Martyrs’ Square, a throng of supporters, estimated at 800,000 by police, turned the funeral into a mass show of force in support of the beleaguered U.S.-backed government, which is dominated by opponents of Syrian influence in its smaller neighbor.
Amid a sea of Lebanese flags, demonstrators chanted slogans against Syria, which they accuse of killing Gemayel, and burned pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his top ally in Lebanon, President Emile Lahoud. “We want revenge from Lahoud and Bashar,” the crowd chanted.
The assassination of Gemayel, the 34-year-old industry minister, in a bold daytime shooting Tuesday has dramatically raised the risk of turmoil in Lebanon, which the United States considers a key front in its attempt to stem Syrian and Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Many fear Lebanon’s political power struggle could move into the streets, at a time when the country is the most polarized since the 1975-90 civil war, divided between anti-Syrian Christians and Sunni Muslims and pro-Syrian Shiites. Each community accounts for roughly a third of the population of 4 million.
The funeral rally energized supporters of the Lebanese government, who vowed to oust Lahoud and seal the anti-Syrian bloc’s full control of Lebanon’s politics. “The second independence uprising for change was launched today and it will not stop,” Gemayel’s father, Amin, told the crowd in Martyr Square, speaking from behind bulletproof glass around the podium. “I pledge to you that we will soon take steps so your efforts will not be in vain,” he added.
But they face the powerful Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran and by most Shiites. Hezbollah, which in the past has brought out crowds of hundreds of thousands, has threatened its own mass protests aimed at bringing down the government.
After Gemayel’s death, Hezbollah put off its threatened demonstrations for now, but will likely feel the need to respond with a show of strength after Thursday’s funeral rally.
Despite the anger at the protest, many said they did not want a renewal of bloodshed and sectarian strife. Omar Farhat, a 35-year-old Phalange supporter, said he hoped the assassination would bring unity among Lebanese. “Otherwise, it’s the end of Lebanon,” he said.
Business and industry leaders announced they would go on a two-day strike beginning Friday to pressure politicians from both sides to sit down and talk to settle the political crisis. But the bitterness dividing the country was on vivid display.
Inside St. Georges Cathedral, some in the congregation booed when Shiite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, entered. Amin Gemayel pointedly skipped Berri as he greeted other dignitaries participating in the ceremony. Out in Martyrs’ Square, protesters stomped on pictures of Assad and Lahoud, and of Hezbollah’s Christian ally, Michel Aoun. They sang songs mocking Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. “We are here because we don’t want to give this land to Syria or Iran,” said Bouchra Salameh, a 59-year-old nurse outside the cathedral. “They’re tearing my country apart. It’s burning, it’s on fire.”
Angered by what they saw as insults leveled against their leader in the rally, several hundred supporters of Hezbollah blocked a road leading to Beirut airport and burned tires in the streets of the southern suburbs of Mar Elias and Zokak al-Blat.
Army troops quickly dispersed the supporters on the airport road, and removed the burning tires. Nasrallah ordered Hezbollah members to leave the streets “immediately and instantly.”
Speaking on an audio tape played on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television, Nasrallah said: “The situation is very sensitive and critical. There are many who do not wish well for the country. We must bear all this with responsibility and restrain our feelings about what happened today.”
The anger and grief at the rally was in contrast to mass anti-Syrian protests that were held in Martyrs’ Square last year, sparked by the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Those protests, which were on the same scale as Thursday’s turnout, were often festive and hopeful. The mass rallies, bolstered by strong international pressure, forced the April 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops, ending 29 years of Syrian domination.
Clearly buoyed by the large turnout at the funeral, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora went on national television Thursday night appealing to Hezbollah and its allies to resume a national dialogue broken off earlier in the month. “Dialogue is the only and sure path that guarantees results,” he said. But his government was pressing ahead with one of the issues that prompted the crisis, the creation of a U.N.-backed international court to try suspects in the Hariri slaying, which Hezbollah opposes. A government official said Saniora called a Cabinet meeting for Saturday to approve the court.
The next stage in the confrontation will likely see efforts to oust the president. During the rally, Lahoud was at the Baabda presidential palace, where heavy security was in place to guard against protesters marching there in an attempt to force him to resign.
Lahoud, whose term ends in a year, has refused to step down. The anti-Syrian majority in Parliament is unable to muster enough votes to force him out without the help of the Christian politician Aoun.
Pierre Gemayel, the scion of his powerful Maronite Christian family, was killed Tuesday when two cars blocked his vehicle at an intersection as he left a church in a Beirut suburb and assassins shot him numerous times through a side window. His driver also was killed. He was the sixth anti-Syrian figure killed in Lebanon in two years. Syria has denied any role in the slayings of Hariri, Gemayel and the other.
During the ceremony at St. Georges Cathedral, Gemayel’s widow wept on the shoulder of her mother-in-law as the head of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, delivered a sermon urging Lebanese to unite to save their country. “We should firmly take a stand and get together in understanding and love,” Sfeir said. After the service, the coffin was taken to the family’s hometown, Bikfaya, and Gemayel was buried.