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Two Beirut rallies. Two visions for Lebanon.

Supporters of both pro-Western factions and Hezbollah militants honored their respective slain leaders.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2008

In downtown Beirut on Thursday, backers of an anti-Syrian political coalition gathered to commemorate the third anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP

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Beirut, Lebanon

Rival visions for Lebanon were on stark display here Thursday as partisans from competing political camps gathered to honor their respective slain leaders.

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In downtown Beirut, tens of thousands of Lebanese braved the icy rain to gather in Martyrs' Square to remember Rafik Hariri, the billionaire former prime minister who died three years ago to the day in a massive truck bomb blast, an assassination that his supporters blame on Syria.

A slew of top anti-Syrian legislators delivered fiery speeches demanding the election of a new president and charged Syria with meddling in Lebanese affairs.

Across town, in the Shiite-dominated southern suburbs, Hizbullah chieftains led a funeral ceremony for Imad Mughnieh, the group's senior military commander who was killed Tuesday in a Damascus bombing.

Here, the talk was of an expanding war with Israel, the Jewish state's eventual destruction, and the need to deny the United States any influence in Lebanon.

The rival events came amid heightening tensions, with Lebanon mired in a steadily worsening crisis pitting the anti-Syrian, pro-Western March 14 political coalition, named for the day of a huge rally three years ago, against the Hezbollah-led opposition, driven perhaps even more now to end American influence here. The country has been without a president since November.

Traveling to both parts of this city and both rallies was more like visiting different countries than different neighborhoods.

Lebanon's 'silent majority'

Downtown Beirut's Martyrs' Square was filled with a sea of rain-soaked flag – some were Lebanese, but many belonged to the various political parties that compose the March 14 coalition.

After days of rallying their supporters, the March 14 leadership was hoping for a big turnout to rekindle the spirit of the Beirut Spring three years ago when a series of mass demonstrations helped hasten the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

"The silent majority has to come down to the streets [to] say 'no way are we going to have Syria back here and no way are we going to live in a Hezbollah state'," says Elie Khoury, an advertising executive-turned-political activist. "We have to keep reminding the silent majority that it's about whether they want to live in a democratic state or live in Hanoi fighting endless wars."

But the crowd that gathered to mark Mr. Hariri's murder was mainly composed of partisans of various political groups who heeded the call of their respective leaders to attend the rally.

Many Lebanese didn't participate Thursday because of the weather, the threat of violence and, for some, disillusion with their leaders.

Abdullah Chehab, a pharmacist, says he attended the Beirut Spring rallies three years ago, believing it would change Lebanon for the better. "But now I think the politicians have shown themselves to be the same. They don't care about the country."