Many Lebanese have blamed the killing of their former prime minister on Syria and its Lebanese allies.

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Under intense public pressure over its allegiance to Syria, the Lebanese government abruptly resigned today even though it appeared likely to have survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote in parliament.

The resignation came as more than 25,000 protesters gathered near parliament to demand that the government step down after the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, two weeks ago. Many Lebanese have blamed Hariri’s killing on Syria and its Lebanese allies.

Syria, which has kept thousands of troops here since 1975, has denied involvement in the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Hariri. Even if Syria was not behind Hariri’s death, it is likely to pay the political cost as international pressure mounts on it to end its political and military dominance over Lebanon.

As parliament convened for a marathon session debating the government’s future, Prime Minister Omar Karami announced that he and his 30-member Cabinet would step down so they “do not become an obstacle to the good of the country.” Protesters watching Karami on a large TV screen in downtown Beirut erupted in cheers and applause. They waved the red, white and green Lebanese flag and chanted “Syria Out!”

Karami’s resignation emboldened the Lebanese opposition, which has become unified and much more popular since Hariri’s killing. Opposition leaders called on demonstrators to remain in Martyr’s Square — near parliament and Hariri’s grave — until Syria withdraws its troops.

“The battle is long, and this is the first step,” Ghattas Khoury, an opposition member of parliament, told protesters. “This is a battle for freedom, sovereignty and independence.”

Some in the crowd began chanting, “Lahoud, your turn is coming,” a reference to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian-backed politician who was not affected by today’s resignations. Opposition leaders have been split on whether to demand Lahoud’s ouster, which could precipitate a constitutional crisis. It would be unprecedented in Lebanon’s history for both a prime minister and president to resign at the same time.

Karami’s Cabinet was a placeholder government appointed after Hariri resigned in October as a protest against Syrian interference in Lebanese politics. Karami’s government was intended to serve only until parliamentary elections are held in April and May. Once the new parliament convened, it would have negotiated with the president on forming a new Cabinet.

With Karami’s resignation, Lahoud must now appoint a temporary government that will approve a law to manage the election. The opposition hopes to use its public support to dominate the temporary cabinet.

In Washington, the Bush administration welcomed the resignation and repeated its demand for a complete Syrian withdrawal. “Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel need to leave the country,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “That will help ensure that elections are free and fair.”

U.S. officials have used the Syrian presence in Lebanon as a way to pressure Damascus to end its support of Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups who are fighting Israel. Washington also has demanded that Syria tighten its border with Iraq, to prevent militants from infiltrating to fight U.S. forces.

For now, Syrian leaders insist that Damascus will keep its 15,000 troops and vast intelligence apparatus in Lebanon until an agreement is reached for the Lebanese army to take over security. But opposition leaders insist that Syria must withdraw immediately.

“We want an honorable withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. We are not looking to humiliate the Syrians, and we will remain strong allies,” said Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and a key opposition figure. “But the Syrians must leave now.”

The U.S.-Syrian standoff has changed with the killing of Hariri, a billionaire businessman who led Lebanon for 10 years and oversaw the rebuilding of Beirut. Hariri, who was preparing to lead an opposition slate in parliamentary elections, was seen a formidable rival to Syrian-backed candidates because of his wealth and popularity.

Hariri’s assassination rekindled fears of sectarian conflict in Lebanon that led to the 1975-90 civil war, which pitted Christian militias and the Lebanese army against Palestinians and militias from the country’s Muslim majority. Syria, Iran, Israel and other regional powers provided arms and money to different militias throughout the war, which killed nearly 150,000 people.

The war ended with a peace agreement that redistributed power among the country’s Maronite Christian president, Sunni Muslim prime minister and Shia Muslim speaker of parliament.

The lack of progress in the investigation of Hariri’s killing has kept up pressure on Syria and its Lebanese allies. Lebanon is rife with conspiracy theories, with many speculating that explosives were laid under the street days before the bombing.

Lebanon has a history of not tracking down those responsible for political killings, including the 1989 assassination of President-elect Rene Mouawad. Before its resignation, Karami’s government resisted calls for an international investigation.

As he opened today’s debate in parliament, Speaker Nabih Berri said, “We seek answers to one question: ‘Who killed Rafik Hariri?’ ”


Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service