Protesters March on U.S. Embassy in Beirut
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Protesters March on U.S. Embassy in Beirut
Pro-Syrian Protesters March on U.S. Embassy; Military Intelligence Vacates Office in Beirut

The Associated Press | March 15, 2005

About 2,000 pro-Syria demonstrators denouncing what they said was American interference in Lebanon marched toward the U.S. Embassy in a Beirut suburb Tuesday, and scores of riot police and soldiers used barbed wire to block the approaches to the compound.

The protesters, waving Lebanese flags and chanting, "Ambassador get out! Leave my country free!" stopped at the barbed wire blocking the road about 500 yards from the fortified hilltop compound. The crowd did not try to break through.

A day earlier, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the capital in the largest anti-Syrian protests yet since international pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops has intensified.

Pro-Syrian groups have blamed the United States for pressuring Syria into deciding to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon. They also reject a U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Syria withdraw and dismantle militias, a reference to the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah.

Also Tuesday, Syrian military intelligence agents vacated an office in Beirut, hauling furniture into three trucks protected by Lebanese police. A policeman at the scene said some Syrian agents have already left and the others were on their way out.

A resident said about 20 agents left in a van and a car earlier Tuesday.

However, Syrian agents remained at their main office for the Lebanese capital, located at Ramlet el-Baida on the edge of the city.

A main demand of the Lebanese opposition has been the evacuation of Syrian intelligence officers, a widely resented arm through which Damascus controlled many aspects of Lebanese life.

In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad discussed Lebanon with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, in a hilltop palace overlooking the capital, an Egyptian official said. Mubarak returned to Egypt shortly afterward, Syria's official news agency SANA reported.

Despite Syria's troop withdrawal last week from northern and central Lebanon to eastern positions closer to the border, most intelligence offices remain. But intelligence agents closed offices in two northern towns and dismantled two checkpoints in the area.

Workers removed a giant portrait of Assad that used to hang near Beirut's seafront corniche. About two dozen Lebanese arrived later at the scene waving their country's flags.

Syrian laborers have been attacked, and a bust of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad father of the current president was vandalized recently amid rising anti-Syrian sentiment sparked by the Feb. 14 assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.

Pro-Syrian Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami began consultations Tuesday to form a Cabinet. He has been in caretaker capacity since Feb. 28 when he was forced to quit under popular pressure. But he was reappointed to the job by President Emile Lahoud 10 days later.

Karami hopes to form a national unity government, which he said is the only way to deal with Lebanon's political crisis.

Karami began his day by meeting former prime ministers before heading to the parliament building in downtown Beirut, where he met Speaker Nabih Berri and later began talks with legislators. He, as well as pro-government groups, have called for a national unity government while the opposition demands a neutral Cabinet that could oversee the investigation into Hariri's assassination and prepare for parliamentary elections in April and May.

"The only way to face these difficulties, complications and rescue the country is a national unity government. This is what we are seeking and this is what we will do. If we can, then that is good and if not we will deal with it later," Karami said before beginning his meetings with legislators.

Asked if he is optimistic, Karami said: "We have to continue our consultations to say whether we are optimistic or not."

On Monday, in the biggest demonstration in Lebanon's recent history, an estimated 1 million opposition supporters gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square in a show of anti-Syrian force. The opposition is demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the ouster of Syrian-allied security chiefs and an international inquiry into the Hariri assassination.

The opposition blames Syria and its Lebanese allies for the killing of Hariri and 17 others in a bombing on a Beirut street. The opposition has rebuffed calls to join a new government until its demands are met.

Lahoud's reinstatement of Karami as prime minister last week was seen as a slap in the opposition's face, because anti-Syrian protests had forced him to resign earlier.

Many in the crowd also demanded the removal of Lahoud as president. The Associated Press estimated turnout to be at least 800,000.

Karami's nomination came two days after a March 8 rally that was called by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah that drew a half-million people. He considered the rally a show of support for his re-nomination.

As Syria pulls its troops toward the border for an eventual withdrawal from the country it has controlled for decades, both the pro-Syrian government and the opposition have been whipping up crowds in a duel of rallies.

Syria has been Lebanon's main power broker since sending troops to its neighbor in 1976 to help quell a civil war. The troops, at times numbering more than 35,000, remained after the war ended in 1990.


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