Monday, February 06, 2006

It was one of those unpredictable Lebanese Sunday mornings. The ski slopes in the mountains overlooking Beirut would have been crowded with skiers enjoying the brilliant winter sunshine. Walkers were out along the Corniche, strolling in designer tracksuits. Downtown, the chic restaurants were preparing for lunchtime. And there were a few men on scooters riding around town broadcasting an imminent protest.

It wasn't long before the heavily-laden coaches and minivans began to arrive from Beirut and the rest of Lebanon. They were all full of young, often bearded men who wore headbands and carried identical flags with calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic such as: "There is no god but God and Mohammad is his Prophet" and "O Nation of Muhammad, Wake Up."

There were soon as many as 20,000 of them filling the streets. They walked up past the Christian quarter of Gemmayze and into the even more genteel Christian area of Achrafieh, gathering not far from the Danish embassy, the target of their protest. One man waved a placard in English that said: "Damn your beliefs and your liberty." Another carried a sign saying: "Whoever insults Prophet Muhammad is to be killed."

The police seemed to know the demonstrators were coming and had turned out in force with barriers, barbed wire fences and several large fire trucks. Just a day earlier, the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus had been torched by a furious mob, repeating the violent protests that have spread across the world from Gaza to Afghanistan to London. On Saturday night, anticipating trouble, the Danish diplomatic staff in Beirut flew home.

The mob stood in the street, chanting their fierce condemnation of the Danish cartoons that spawned this rapidly-spreading crisis. By 11am, the Lebanese police and army were firing tear gas at the crowd. The protesters threw volleys of stones. Some stuffed cotton wool into their nostrils to stifle the effect of the gas.

One group overturned a car and set it alight. Sunni clerics in robes tried to calm the young men down. They were ignored. One cleric, Ibrahim Ibrahim, said his pleas were met with stones and insults. "They are hooligans," he said.

The mob grew fiercer, and finally the police withdrew. As they moved back, the crowd smashed their way into the building housing the Danish embassy and set it ablaze. From the burning building they hung a banner that read: "We are ready to sacrifice our children for you, O Prophet Muhammad." By now dozens of people had been wounded or arrested and at least one person was killed, a protester apparently caught up in the fire at the embassy building.

The many politicians representing Lebanon's fractured sectarian society sensed this was suddenly a situation a long way out of control. "It is the work of infiltrators," said Saiad Hariri, a prominent Sunni politician. "These acts have nothing to do with the Prophet. They are harming Muslims."
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