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U.S. hails Lebanese democracy move

Government resigns amid anti-Syria protests


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Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister resigns. CNN's Octavia Nasr reports.

Demonstrations planned in Beirut. CNN's Brent Sadler reports.

Fallout from the assassination of Lebanon's Rafik Hariri.
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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The United States supports the Lebanese people's expression of democratic aspirations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said.

Meanwhile Tuesday, Lebanon's pro-Syrian president was searching for a new prime minister to replace Omar Karami, who resigned following two weeks of protests over the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Thousands of demonstrators, awash in a sea of red, white and green Lebanese flags, have been demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon since last month's assassination of Hariri, who opposed Syria's military presence in Lebanon.

Speaking in London Tuesday, the day after the toppling of the Syrian-backed government by what the media called "people power," Rice offered support to Lebanon for free and fair elections.

"Events in Lebanon are moving in a very important direction. The Lebanese people are starting to express their aspirations for democracy ... This is something that we support very much."

Demonstrators in Beirut's Martyrs Square chanted, "Syria out! Syria out!" after Karami announced his resignation in a speech aired by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.

Thousands then exploded into riotous celebration. The protesters left in the early hours of Tuesday only for a few hundred to return hours later, vowing to keep up their protests until Syrian troops leave the country. They are also demanding to know the truth about Hariri's killing.

"Our hopes are growing regarding Syria's exit after the resignation of the government," Patrick Risha, a 22-year-old political science student told Reuters at Martyrs Square.

"This encourages us to stay here and continue our protest."

"We will not go to school. We will keep coming here until (President Emile) Lahoud is toppled and the Syrians leave Lebanon," Elainne Hajj, 16, said.

The dramatic developments were reminiscent of Ukraine's recent peaceful "orange revolution" and were broadcast live across the Arab world.

"Government falls under the pressure of the people and the hammer of the opposition," said Al-Mustaqbal daily, owned by the late Hariri, according to Reuters.

"People power brings down Karami's Cabinet," the headline in Beirut's English-language Daily Star newspaper read.

"Electricity is in the air. Beirut is a sea of excitement, and activity and turmoil," it said in an editorial.

"The word 'revolution' is on many lips."

The Daily Star urged the opposition and loyalists alike to grasp the full magnitude of the popular movement and heed its wishes for a new Lebanon.

"And Syria should consider what is happening in a sombre manner and not thwart the ideals demonstrated by Lebanon's youth: It is, indeed, the time for change," it said.

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.

President Emile Lahoud will choose Karami's replacement, who will then be asked to form a new government until scheduled elections in May.

Farid Abboud, the Lebanese ambassador to the United States, denied the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops and intelligence agents would influence the elections and said they would be free and fair.

"The elections will express the will of the Lebanese people," Abboud told CNN.

"The presence of troops has not disqualified the elections which were conducted in Iraq, or Afghanistan or Palestine. The fact that there are Syrian troops in Lebanon does not disqualify our democracy as a democracy.

"We will conduct fair and transparent elections. They will be observed by outsiders; people will see how open the debate will be."

'Decisive victory'

But Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares said Karami's resignation was "really unexpected" and had left a "very delicate" situation.

"He did not really discuss it with the members of government, and neither will the speaker," Fares said, referring to parliament speaker Nabih Berri. "I don't know if he has discussed it with the president."

Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, a key opposition figure, called Karami's resignation "a decisive victory for the opposition and the Lebanese people."

He also called for international support for the Lebanese opposition movement and urged the Hezbollah leadership "to join this revolution."

Speaking to CNN's Beirut Bureau Chief Brent Sadler in an exclusive interview in his headquarters in Mukhtara, Jumblatt said the protesters represented "most of the Lebanese people, but we have still one factor that is Hezbollah."

"We cannot neglect the importance of Hezbollah on the Lebanese scene. They've liberated the south; they've achieved the independence of Lebanon from Israeli occupation. Can they join us as Lebanese for the true independence of Lebanon? Can they new generation of Lebanon, claiming freedom, independence, democracy? Question to be asked of Hezbollah."

"They are Lebanese. They are not a party imported from somewhere else."

Jumblatt remained at his mountain stronghold rather than attend the demonstration, fearing he would be targeted if he appeared.

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.

The demonstrations had 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.

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.

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.

The Bush administration has accused Syria, along with Iran and North Korea, of sponsoring terrorism.

In this year's State of the Union address, Bush said: "Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region."

CNN Beirut Bureau Chief Brent Sadler contributed to this report.


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