Lebanon 'March 14' camp readies for Rafiq Hariri rally

BEIRUT: Lebanon's majority "March 14" camp gathered on Sunday for a mass rally marking the fifth anniversary of the slaying of former premier Rafiq Hariri that it hopes will quash rumours of a rift in its ranks.

"We are expecting a large turnout at the rally, but more importantly we are expecting a peaceful rally that joins Lebanese of all confessions, Christian and Muslim," March 14 secretary general Fares Soueid told AFP.

Hariri's assassination in a massive car bombing on February 14, 2005 saw the rise of a US- and Saudi-backed alliance that became known as March 14, named after a day of massive anti-Syrian protests dubbed the "Cedar Revolution."

Combined with international pressure, the protests in the weeks after the killing led to the pullout of Syrian troops from the tiny Mediterranean country in April 2005 following a 29-year deployment.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the five-time ex-premier murdered on Valentine's Day, now leads the alliance and a unity government which includes the Syrian-backed former opposition.

"It was hard for the Lebanese to witness the compromises made in forming a unity government," Soueid said, referring to months of political bargaining last year before Hariri was able to form a cabinet acceptable to both sides.

Hariri's alliance has two parliamentary election wins under its belt.

But it was dealt a major blow when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, once the most vociferous critic of Syria, defected in 2009 to move closer to the rival Hezbollah-led camp backed by Damascus and Tehran.

Damascus has also since last year broken out of its international isolation, enjoying warmer ties with both Washington and Riyadh, Hariri's main backers.

Hariri's own visit to Damascus in December and the softening of his stance against Syria, whom he had openly accused of his father's murder, have been viewed as signs that the March 14 movement was losing steam.

But in a television interview late on Friday, Hariri said that "only death" could separate him from his allies.

Soueid said the prime minister had had no choice but to strike a "balancing act -- he must be both realistic and still safeguard the principles of the Cedar Revolution."

MP Marwan Hamadeh, a member of Jumblatt's bloc and himself the survivor of an assassination attempt, told AFP he still expected as strong a turnout on Sunday as on previous anniversaries.

"All these recent changes have not affected the principles of the Lebanese and their faith in Rafiq Hariri and the Cedar Revolution," Hamadeh said, adding that he was speaking for himself rather than his bloc.

"The point was never to just continuously denounce Syria, but to confirm Lebanon's independence, Arab identity and its commitment to international resolutions," he added.

On Friday, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon said the world body remains committed to legal efforts to uncover the truth about the Hariri assassination of five years ago.

An international tribunal based in The Hague was set up by a UN Security Council resolution in 2007 to try suspects in the murder.

A UN commission of inquiry initially said it had found evidence to implicate Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services but there are no suspects in custody. Damascus has denied any involvement.

US President Barack Obama assured the younger Hariri in a telephone call this week that he strongly supports bringing to justice the killers of his father, according to the White House.