BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Lebanese government abruptly resigned Monday during a stormy parliamentary debate, prompting a tremendous roar from tens of thousands of anti-government protesters in central Beirut.
The demonstrators, awash in a sea of red, white and green Lebanese flags, had demanded the pro-Syrian government’s resignation — and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon — since this month’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Demonstrators in Beirut’s Martyrs Square chanted, “Syria out! Syria out!” after Prime Minister Omar Karami announced his resignation in a speech aired by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.
In his speech, Karami said he would have won a no-confidence vote scheduled for later in the day, but was resigning to avoid making his government a stumbling block to peace.
The country’s pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, now must pick a prime minister to form a new government until scheduled elections in May.
“We are still following the rules of the constitution,” said Farid Abboud, the Lebanese ambassador to the United States.
“We will manage to weather the storm peacefully and change course, maybe, or resume our political life normally without violence.”
J. Adam Ereli, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said the United States shared “the Lebanese people’s desire for the extension of Lebanese sovereignty over all of Lebanon’s territory and the disarming of militias and the conduct of elections, parliamentary and otherwise that are free fair and transparent and are not marred by intimidation and violence.”
He added: “There’s a constitutional process in Lebanon, we have every expectation that that constitutional process will be followed and that a new government will be able to fulfill the desires and the wishes of the people of Lebanon as they have been expressing them so eloquently for the past several weeks.”
Meanwhile, a Lebanese opposition figure called for popular protests in Beirut to continue until Syria leaves.
“The battle is long, and this is the first step, this is the battle for freedom, sovereignty and independence,” Ghattas Khouri told a cheering protest in central Beirut, according to Reuters.
The opposition had raised its rhetoric in recent days, taking its cue from international pressure — led by the U.S. and France — to force Syrian troops from Lebanon following Hariri’s killing.
Earlier Monday, demonstrators defied a ban and poured into Beirut’s city center Monday to protest against Syria’s military presence in Lebanon.
“We are asking for Syrian withdrawal,” said opposition leader Camille Chamoun of the National Liberation Party, which has helped orchestrate numerous protests in recent days.
“The Syrian occupation forces and their security systems have to go back to Syria.
“We don’t want anything against the Syrian people,” said Chamoun, whose grandfather, also named Camille Chamoun, was president of Lebanon from 1952-58.
“We are not a nation that likes war. We just want everybody to be on his own side.”
An estimated 50,000 people gathered Monday in Beirut’s Martyr Square despite an order a day earlier by Lebanon’s Interior Ministry for military forces to “use all necessary means” to make sure the demonstrations did not take place.
CNN’s Brent Sadler described Monday’s protests as non-confrontational.
“There is a standoff that is not in any way tense,” he reported. “It is a mild-mannered … standoff. The army and the police … have ringed off a very large area in downtown Beirut.”
The demonstrations have focused on whether Syria played a role in Hariri’s death on February 14.
Since then, thousands of demonstrators have peacefully protested Syria’s military presence in Lebanon.
“The free world is really helping Lebanon restore its sovereignty,” Chamoun said. “I imagine there is quite a bit of pressure on Syria to leave. I hope they leave in a peaceful way.”
Chamoun accused the Lebanese government of taking orders from Syria.
“They have taken over our parliament with making bad elections three times consecutively,” he said. “They have taken over power in Lebanon. The people in government in this country are their allies and obey unconditionally any orders from Damascus.”
‘Schedule to withdraw’
Syria has denied meddling in Lebanese affairs, and the Lebanese government has denied following Syria’s lead.
Syrian Cabinet Minister Bouthaina Shaaban denied Sunday that Syria was involved in Hariri’s death, despite the U.S. State Department’s contention that Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism and that Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah operate with Syrian support.
“Syria has never carried out a terrorist attack against anyone,” she told CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.”
Asked whether Syria was prepared to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, Shaaban said, “Syria has been redeploying its forces from Lebanon long before anybody in the international community asked Syria to do that.”
Asked when that “redeployment” might be finalized, she said only that the two countries have “a schedule for the forces to withdraw” but not what that schedule stipulated.
U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, was not impressed.
“I thought those responses were weak,” he told CNN. “When she talks about redeployment, it’s an excuse for ‘no withdrawal.’ We know that Syria has housed the terrorists in Damascus for decades.”
He added: “I think Syria is in deep trouble, unless they make big changes, and right away.”
Specter said the country could face “more sanctions” under the Syrian Accountability Act.
A U.N. team set up to investigate the assassination of Hariri is at work in Beirut.
Syria keeps thousands of troops in Lebanon, left over from their larger deployment after the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war.
U.S. President George W. Bush said this month that Syria was “out of step” with other nations in the Middle East and said the United States would work with other countries to pressure Damascus to remove its troops from Lebanon.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns met this month with Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud, demanding that Syria immediately comply with U.N. Resolution 1559, calling for withdrawal of some 13,000 Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon.
Syria’s Shaaban also dismissed a report that Syria and Iran — which the United States accuses of harboring a nuclear weapons program — have created a common front against the United States.
Shaaban said the story stemmed from Syria’s prime minister, who said in Arabic that “cooperation existed between Syria and Iran for years and will continue to exist.”
But that comment was translated poorly into English, said Shaaban, who added that she worked for 10 years as an interpreter and “laughed” when she heard the translation.
“He was not speaking about a military pact,” she said.