Beirut Demonstrators Call for Widespread Ouster

Hundreds of thousands of protesters converge on central Beirut, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Western-backed government. The protest by Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies is the first of a planned series of mass demonstrations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters converged on Central Beirut today demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Western-backed government. The opposition, including the Hezbollah movement, wants a greater say in national decisions. Siniora insists he will stay in power.

But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut, the opposition is vowing to keep up the protests until he leaves.

PETER KENYON: Last week, Martyr's Square was the scene of a large rally supporting the Siniora government after Cabinet Minister Pierre Gemayel was gunned down in a Beirut suburb. But today an even larger crowd gathered in hopes of seeing the prime minister gone.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of crowd)

KENYON: The crowd was largely but not exclusively young. Most of the flags were the red, white and green Lebanese national flag, although yellow Hezbollah headscarves and orange hats worn by supporters of Christian General Michel Aoun were seen in abundance.

Some in the throng, such as a 38-year-old Christian who identified himself only as Sharvel, viewed the need for change in purely domestic terms. He called the current government thief people, referring to allegations of corruption that have dogged some in Siniora's coalition.

SHARVEL: I'm against Siniora, his forces and all those thief people. They are not (unintelligible). They are liars. They stole the country.

KENYON: The views of Maya Ismael, a young Shiite woman from South Lebanon, reflected the heavy baggage the Siniora government carries in being seen as close to the United States. This summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah cemented America's reputation here as Israel's best friend, and the swath of destruction Israeli fighter jets left across south Lebanon left Lebanese Shiites seething at their own government's failure to act. The 23-year-old Ismael says the images she saw as the bombs fell on her village still outrage her.

Ms. MAYA ISMAEL: And the government is a big traitor. During the war, first of all, they had a visit with Condoleezza Rice while the children and the kids and the women are getting killed. And they were eating together. And they were eating bombs on our heads.

KENYON: Michele Aoun, the Christian general who formed an alliance with the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and other opposition groups, gave a fairly low key speech, saying the opposition wants to be a legitimate part of a national unity government, not to chance the current leaders away completely. But the biggest cheer he got came when he called on the government to resign en masse.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

KENYON: I asked the prime minister and his ministers to resign, said Aoun, and to become a caretaker government until this crisis ends and a national unity government is formed. The only way out, he said, is resignation.

Siniora has vowed to stay in power. His office is just up the hill from the demonstrators and the way was blocked with barbed wire, barricades, scores of soldiers and armored vehicles. It's not clear how many of these demonstrators intend to stay here indefinitely. By nightfall, the crowd had thinned out considerably, but some remained as tents were erected and food brought in.

It's also not clear where these pro and anti-government rallies will lead. Ryad Assad, an independent Shiite politician, says when it comes to muscle, none of the other parties can match Hezbollah.

Mr. RYAD ASSAD (Lebanese politician): The streets of Beirut are Hezbollah streets. The other guys are on the peripheries.

KENYON: Speaking before the rally, Assad cautioned, however, that Hezbollah has to be careful not to damage its hard won image as a militia that fights only Israel.

Mr. ASSAD: Hezbollah has a lot to lose if it goes down to the street because Hezbollah has always prided itself that it is pure arms and their arms are only pointing south. It cannot allow itself to have any single arm, be it muscles or be it (unintelligible) or be it guns, pointing any other direction.

KENYON: Analysts are hoping that the tough talk on both sides amounts to brinksmanship and that serious negotiations will get underway before something happens to provoke violence among those massing in the streets.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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