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Prime Minister Steps Down In Lebanon amid Obstacles

By Hassan M. Fattah

The New York Times -- BEIRUT, Lebanon

Lebanon’s prime minister, Omar Karami, resigned from office on Monday, dissolving the country’s pro-Syrian government and setting the stage for an intense struggle over the relationship between Syria and Lebanon.

The surprise resignation came as the streets of Beirut were filled with tens of thousands of flag-waving protesters and hours after a grueling no-confidence debate in the Lebanese Parliament. Pressure on both the government and Syria has risen steadily since the car-bomb assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister, two weeks ago, for which government opponents blame Syria.

The Lebanese opposition has demanded a full investigation of Hariri’s assassination, the resignation of the government, and an immediate pullout of Syria’s 14,000 troops from Lebanon. Opposition leaders say they have consciously imitated the popular uprising in Ukraine, where demonstrators forced the government to call a new election after accusations of corruption.

Marches over the past two weeks here culminated in a huge demonstration at Martyr’s Square on Monday in open defiance of an Interior Ministry order against the gathering, as the parliamentary session began.

Lebanese soldiers circled much of the city center with barbed wire and barricades on Sunday evening to block the Monday demonstration, but to little avail.

Syria has been under intense American pressure because of its support for anti-Israel terrorism and for what Washington says is its tolerance of wanted former Iraqi officials taking refuge in Syria. In addition, the Bush administration has pressed for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon.

Lebanese opposition leaders say they feel that the Damascus government is more vulnerable than ever and that this is the moment to act, especially as Lebanon’s wary communities of Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druse have grown more united in their demands for the Syrians to leave.

Karami, a Syria loyalist, announced his resignation in a terse statement as Parliament reconvened debate on the confidence measure. “Out of concern that the government does not become an obstacle to the good of the country, I announce the resignation of the government I had the honor to lead,” he said.

Lebanese television reported that President Emile Lahoud had accepted Karami’s resignation and that he would soon establish a caretaker government.

Karami, scion of the Lebanese independence hero Abdul Hamid Karami and brother of the multiterm prime minister Rashid Karami, who was assassinated in 1987, was defiant as he faced Parliament on Monday morning.

“I call on everyone to be patient and avoid taking their strength from abroad, allowing Lebanese demands to be manipulated by the ongoing conflict in the Arab world,” he warned, in an allusion to growing pressure by the United States and France on his government and on Syria.

The resignation is likely to help budding democratic efforts throughout the Middle East. Few opposition parliamentarians expected to win the no-confidence measure, but in a nod to the growing populism of the opposition, Karami bowed to the Lebanese street.