Lebanon marks 5th anniversary of former PM Hariri assassination in massive rally

Saad Hariri: My visit to Damascus was part of a large window opened by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques

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President Sleiman, PM Hariri receive Saudi Minister Khoja, chosen as 2009 man of the year by WAAAUB

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Beirut Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose death touched off Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" and ushered in the end of Syria's 30-year military domination.

Although turnout was huge, it was estimated to be less than in previous years — perhaps a reflection of the rift within the pro-Western ruling coalition, now headed by the slain Hariri's son, the current prime minister.

"I am here to say Rafik Hariri did not die for nothing," said Zeina al-Sidani, who was carrying a red, white and green Lebanese flag in one hand and a red rose in the other. "We will continue to fight for our independence."

Hariri was killed in a massive truck bombing in Beirut on Valentine's Day 2005, a killing that sparked a cascade of political turmoil in the Middle East. An international tribunal set up to try his killers has yet to identify the perpetrators.

The five-time prime minister had close ties with Western leaders as well as Syria and was credited with helping rebuild Lebanon's capital after the 1975-1990 civil war. In the last few months before his assassination, however, he had tried to limit Damascus' influence over Lebanon, and many accused Syria of involvement in his killing. Syria denies those accusations.

Hariri's death 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 dubbed the "Cedar Revolution." The demonstrations eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, ending almost three decades of Syrian domination that was established during Lebanon's civil war.

This year's anniversary comes after Prime Minister Saad Hariri reconciled with neighboring Syria, whom he has openly accused of killing his father. The 40-year-old Hariri now heads a unity government that includes Syrian-backed politicians who had been part of the political opposition.

Unlike in previous years, when leaders' speeches were peppered with attacks and insults against Syria, Hariri this year spoke of a new stage in Lebanon's relations with its neighbor.

"In all truth, honesty and responsibility, I am keen on keeping this window open and on building a new era in Lebanese-Syrian relations, from one sovereign, free and independent state to another," he said.

Billboards showing the elder Hariri were erected across Lebanon's seaside capital, and many in the crowd carried banners that read "We miss you."

"I hope one day we will know who killed him and all the others," said Elias Rahmeh, 40, referring to a string of political assassinations in Lebanon. Rahmeh said he wished Hariri had not reconciled with Syria before the truth came out from the tribunal about who killed his father.

"But he is prime minister now, and there are things he is forced to do even if he doesn't like them."

An international tribunal based in the Netherlands was set up a year ago to prosecute Hariri's killers, but there are concerns that the case is languishing.

Two high-level departures from the court in recent weeks have increased the worries of Hariri's backers, but the tribunal's head said during a visit to Beirut this month that the investigation is on track.

President Barack Obama also assured Hariri in a telephone call that he strongly supports the work of the tribunal, according to Hariri's office.

Sunday's rally in Beirut's Martyrs' Square was an attempt by Saad Hariri and his allies to regain some of the political momentum lost after a major rift within its ranks.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt — once a key figure in the March 14 alliance and a vehement critic of Syria who even called for Syrian President Bashar Assad's overthrow — quit the Western-backed coalition in August and moved closer to the rival Hezbollah-led camp.

He now calls for "distinctive relations" with Syria and says he's prepared to also visit Damascus, the Syrian capital. Jumblatt grudgingly said he will attend Sunday's rally with Hariri, but he left before the speeches began.

Meanwhile, President of the Republic of Lebanon General Michel Suleiman received at Baabda Palace the Minister of Culture and Information Dr. Abdulaziz bin Mohieddin Khoja of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who is currently visiting Lebanon to attend a ceremony that will be held on Friday by Worldwide Alumni Association of American University of Beirut (WAAAUB) on the occasion of choosing him 'Man of the Year 2009'.

During the meeting, the President congratulated Dr. Khoja for chosen as Man of the Year 2009, praising the role he played in promoting relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and demanded him to convey his greetings to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

The meeting was attended by Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon, Ali bin Saeed bin Awwadh Al-Asiri and the delegation of WAAAUB which briefed the Lebanese President on choosing the Saudi minister of Culture and Information Dr. Khoja as Man of the Year, awarding him the Highest Medal in the Branch of Engineering and Architecture.

Also, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri received Dr. Khoja who was visiting Lebanon to attend an honoring ceremony Friday by the WAAAUB on the occasion of choosing him 'Man of the Year 2009'.

During the meeting, the Lebanese Premier Al-Hariri congratulated the Minister Dr. Khoja for chosen as Man of the Year 2009, lauding his role to strengthen the fraternal relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Lebanon in various fields.

Dr. Khoja attended a reception party held by the Consultative Commission for Taif Forum in Lebanon in Beirut downtown.

In a key address, Dr. Khoja confirmed that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very pleased of the determination and will of Lebanon's people to proceed for stability and development.

Led by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the Kingdom looks with delight to the result reached by the people of Lebanon recently, he said, hinting to the formation of a national unity government led by Saad Al-Hariri.

He paid tribute to late Rafiq Al-Hariri who, he said, was seeking to see Lebanon stable and developing. He cited Taif Forum as an example of charitable and developmental work.

For her part, Mrs. Bahiah Al-Hariri thanked Dr. Khoja for his feelings and requested him to convey the people of Lebanon's appreciation of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, his crown prince and the people of the Kingdom for their strenuous support for Lebanon.

She lauded the effort exerted by Dr. Khoja while he was ambassador of the Kingdom to Lebanon, citing a number of positions and contributions of the Kingdom to the economic development which helped Lebanon to achieve its military, political, economic and national goals.

The event was attended by Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awwad Saeed Assiri, representatives of the President of the Republic, Prime Minister, Speaker of the parliament and a number of ministers, senior officials and dignitaries.

The World Association of Graduates of American University in Beirut held on Friday evening a ceremony in honor of the Minister of Culture and Information of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Dr. Abdulaziz bin Mohieddin Khoja on the occasion of his selection by the Association as Personality of the Year 2009.

Upon arrival at the venue, Dr. Khoja was received by Rector of American University in Beirut Peter Dorman.

A speech ceremony was held on this occasion.

In his speech Dr. Khoja thanked the University and the Association of Graduates of Faculty of Engineering and Architecture for selecting him as the Personality of the Year 2009.

He noted the deep-rooted relations between the two countries and said ' The years of my term of office as Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon had been a good opportunity to know the amount of love in the heart of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz towards this dear country and I listened to his keenness on security and stability of Lebanon.'

The Minister of Culture and Information recalled the King's remarks in which he had said 'Lebanon always remains in our hearts'.

He added,' During all these years dear to my heart, I listened to the directives of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques confirming historical relations between our two countries as well as Lebanon's stability, security and development.'

On his part, Lebanese Information Minister Tareq Mitri commended Dr. Khoja by saying that during his era as an ambassador, our historical relations have been increasingly enhanced and become a good example of brotherly ties.

Then, the Association's members decorated Dr. Khoja with the Association's sash, honoring him as Personality of the Year 2009.

The ceremony was attended by Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali bin Saeed bin Awadh Asiri, a number of Lebanese officials and ambassadors of Arab countries.