BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of Lebanese filled a central Beirut square Sunday to mark the 2005 protests that ended Syria's 30-year domination of the country and to demand that the militant group Hezbollah, seen as a proxy of Syria, give up its weapons.
The rally by the country's pro-Western political opposition was a potent display of numbers and came at a tense time for Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, which is being swept by a wave of anti-government unrest.
The crowd waved Lebanese flags, banners of pro-Western political parties and posters of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose 2005 assassination prompted the protest movement that drove out Syrian troops later that year in what became known as the "Cedar Revolution." The billionaire businessman had been quietly challenging Damascus' domination over Lebanon at the time of his assassination.
"We came here to say we are against (Hezbollah's) weapons," said merchant Atef Kahwaji, 51. "They lie when they say the weapons are to be used against Israel only."
Hezbollah has an arsenal that far outweighs that of the national army and enjoys popular backing from most of Lebanon's Shiite Muslims and many Christians. The group says it needs its weapons to defend Lebanon in case of an Israeli attack.
In 2008, Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut after the pro-Western government tried to dismantle the group's telecommunications network. More than 80 people were killed in those clashes, which led many to accuse Hezbollah of breaking its promise not to use its arms against fellow Lebanese.
This year's anniversary coincides with rising tension stemming from deft political maneuvering by Hezbollah and its allies in January that forced the collapse of a government led by pro-Western Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain statesman.
Hezbollah and its allies were then able to usher in their favored candidate to head a new government. Several defections from the pro-Western camp also added to their political strength by giving them a majority in parliament.
The Shiite militant group and its allies walked out of the previous coalition government after Saad Hariri refused to denounce an international tribunal investigating his father's assassination. The tribunal is widely expected to accuse Hezbollah members of involvement in the killing.
Hariri's assassination was followed by the rise of a U.S.- and Saudi-backed alliance that became known as the March 14 coalition, named after a day of massive anti-Syrian protests. The demonstrations led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, ending almost three decades of domination by Lebanon's larger neighbor.
Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 as part of an Arab force trying to end Lebanon's civil war.
As the years passed, the March 14 coalition took major blows, including the defection of two of its main founders, who broke away to join the Hezbollah-led alliance. Christian leader Michel Aoun left in 2006 and Druse leader Walid Jumblatt reconciled with Syria last year and joined the Hezbollah-led alliance in January.