Exactly one month after former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive bombing attack, central Beirut was again awash with unprecedented anti-Syrian emotions.
Hundreds of thousands of people, Sunni, Maronite Christian and Druze alike, gathered in Martyrs Square in the capital center, brandishing red, white, green Lebanese flags and chanting anti-Syrian slogans.
"Syria Out!" and "Sovereignty, freedom, independence!" were heard echoing above the Mediterranean city and Hariri's posters seen waving in people's hands.
Angry Lebanese demanded an international investigation into Hariri's killing and a complete and swift Syrian pullout of its troops and intelligence forces, after a nearly 30-year military presence in its tiny neighbor.
Apart from the vast sea of opposition protesters in the square, steady flows of people could be seen pouring from all corners of the city, and all kinds of vehicles were bringing in large influx of people from across the country.
Estimates of the number of protesters varied from 1 million to 300,000.
The groundswell of public anger, which defied comparison both in scope and scale, came after a mass pro-Syrian demonstration was staged last week, organized by Damascus-backed Hezbollah, a Shiite political-cum-militia group.
Hezbollah supporters chanted anti-Washington slogans and thanked Syria for its role in keeping stability and security in Lebanon. Syria sent its troops to Lebanon in 1976 and acted as a powerbroker during its tiny neighbor's 1975-1990 civil war. The recent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations raised the spectre of sectarian conflicts in Lebanon. The tense situation in the streets forces Lebanese authorities to mull a ban on popular protests in an effort to prevent peaceful demonstrations lapsing into violence.
The outpouring of anti-Syrian emotions was triggered by the assassination of Hariri on Feb. 14. Hariri, a Sunni, was widely regarded as a major architect of Lebanon's postwar revival and an opponent to Syria's influence.
Hariri fell out with Damascus when Syria threw weight behind a Lebanese constitution amendment to extend presidential terms of incumbent Emile Lahoud, a Damascus favorite.
Lebanese opposition accused Syria of playing a role in the killing plot, a charge denied by Damascus.
Hariri's killing sent shock waves across Lebanon's political landscape, leading to the resignation of Omar Karami's government on Feb. 28.
However, Karami was reappointed as prime minister shortly afterwards, partly erasing the efforts by opposition to oust the pro-Syrian government.
Under mounting international pressure, Syrian President Basharal-Assad announced Saturday Syria would pull out the 14,000 troops and intelligence forces soon.
This latest Syrian commitment to a pullout was a result after UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen held talks with Assad, urging him to implement the UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The resolution, jointly sponsored by Washington and Paris, was approved in September 2004, calling on foreign troops to quit Lebanon and stop meddling in the country's internal affairs. The envoy said he would report back to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on details of a pullout timetable.
The international community hoped the pullout of troops and security forces could be conducted before Lebanon's elections in May.
Meanwhile, the first contingent of Syrian forces stationed in Lebanon pulled back into the Syrian territories early Saturday. About 60 military vehicles carrying some 1,000 Syrian soldiers in full uniform besides dozens of military trucks loaded with equipment crossed the Jdaidet Yabous border checkpoint, 70 km east of Beirut and 40 km west of Damascus.
The maneuver came one day after all Syrian troops completed withdrawal from northern Lebanon.
Only one major intelligence office in Lebanon's second largest city of Tripoli remained, said Lebanese security sources, adding it could pull out within 24 hours.
(Xinhua News Agency March 15, 2005)