BEIRUT, LEBANON // Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets of Beirut yesterday to remember slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The rally on the fourth anniversary of the Sunni leader's assassination came as Lebanese politicians launched campaigns ahead of critical parliamentary elections, which will pit the nation's western-backed coalition against the Hizbollah-led camp supported by Iran and Syria. Sunni, Druze and Christian leaders called on Lebanese to head en-masse to the polls in June, telling the crowds that the vote would boil down to a decision between an impartial and sovereign country and a state marred in conflict with neighbouring Israel and dominated by regional powers. The June 7 election "is a crossroads in the life of the democratic Lebanon," said Saad Hariri, the head of the parliamentary majority and son of the slain leader, who was killed in a massive bomb explosion in central Beirut on Feb 14 2005.
The elections "are an occasion to raise the voice for a free, independent and capable state," he said to cheering crowds that brandished Lebanese flags. Hizbollah and its allies accuse the Hariri camp of sacrificing the Arab and Palestinian causes and serving the interests of the US and Israel. The rally comes two weeks before the official inauguration of an international tribunal to try the suspects in Hariri's killing. Syria was widely blamed for the crime and for a series of assassinations that targeted political figures critical of its policies. Syria denies any involvement.
"We say it openly: There is no compromise on the international tribunal and justice," said the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the main figures of the anti-Syrian bloc. He also called for the disarming of Hizbollah, which says it needs to maintain a massive arsenal of weapons as a deterrent against what it describes as Israeli aggression. The Hariri commemoration came just two days after the first anniversary of the killing of Hezbollah's military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, in a car bomb in Damascus. Israel, which denies having a role in his death, has threatened to attack Lebanon if Hizbollah tried to avenge his killing.
* LA Times