Hundreds of thousands of opposition demonstrators waved gathered in Beirut’s Martyrs Square today, throwing the biggest protest yet in the duel of street rallies with supporters of Syria and the Lebanese government.
An estimated 800,000 had gathered in the square before the protest formally began.
Crowds of men, women and children flooded the square, spilling over into nearby streets, while more from across Lebanon packed the roads into Beirut - responding to the opposition call to mark a month since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
His murder sparked a series of protests against Syria, the dominant power in Lebanon.
“We are coming to liberate our country. We are coming to demand the truth,” said Fatma Trad, a veiled Sunni Muslim woman who travelled from the remote region of Dinniyeh in northern Lebanon to take part.
The protest easily dwarfed the pro-government rally of 500,000, held last week by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah. That show of strength forced the opposition to act to regain its momentum.
Syria’s military withdrawal continued today, with intelligence agents closing two offices in northern Lebanon. In all, about 50 intelligence agents left - destination unknown, but believed to be northern Syria.
Most intelligence offices, the widely resented arm through which Syria has controlled many aspects of Lebanese life, remained in northern and central Lebanon after Syrian troops moved east, closer to the Syrian border.
The opposition is demanding a full Syrian withdrawal, the resignations of Lebanese security chiefs and an international investigation into the assassination of Hariri in a powerful bomb blast in Beirut.
Many were also particularly offended by pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s reinstatement last week of Prime Minister Omar Karami, who was forced to resign on by a giant opposition protest.
“They are challenging us, and we are here to show them that we will not accept,” said Farid Samaha, a 32-year-old banker, as he joined the demonstration. “We are determined to liberate our country and we will not stop.”
A long line of people in Martyrs Square carried a 100 yard white-and-red Lebanese flag with the distinct green cedar tree in the middle, shaking it up and down and shouting, “Syria out.”
Protesters sang the national anthem. Others chanted ”Truth, Freedom, National Unity,” or “We want only the Lebanese army in Lebanon.”
“Syria out, no half measures,” read a banner, apparently borrowing from President George Bush’s “half measure” description of Syria’s gradual withdrawal.
There were no official estimates of the crowd size, but an Associated Press estimate put it at around 800,000 before the protest formally started, making it the biggest demonstration ever seen in the nation of 3.5 million.