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Hezbollah ralliers growing restless

BEIRUT, Lebanon – When hundreds of thousands of demonstrators choked downtown Beirut on Sunday to demand the ouster of the U.S.-backed government, their crushing show of political strength came packaged with a harsh threat: Time for a political compromise is running out.

At the podium, a menacing tone laced the speeches of party officials from Hezbollah and its allies. On the jammed streets, frustration crept into the cries of demonstrators who washed over downtown in waves. The massive sit-in has moved into its second week without tangible results, and within the opposition, calls are mounting for an escalation in civil disobedience.

Gen. Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian leader and political ally of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, closed the demonstration with a threat. Cheers rose as Aoun promised that “this stage has come close to its end.”

“In the few coming days, we expect to change the status quo we’re in. This must be the last big rally we’ll call for, because in the next one there will be no room for all the protesters,” he said. “And the barbed wire will no longer protect the (government offices), because people will move there naturally and without any instigation.”

Aoun pledged to remain peaceful, but, in the next breath, said pointedly that “other means” also were legitimate.

From Arab diplomats to Christian clerics, negotiators are struggling to broker a power-sharing compromise to bring Lebanon back from the brink of collapse.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa was expected to return to Lebanon this week to continue searching for a deal. Late Sunday, reports emerged that Hezbollah might be willing to accept the Arab League proposal. But the details weren’t clear and other flashes of optimism have been squelched in weeks of contentious negotiations.

Dismissing the street protests as an attempted coup d’etat engineered by Hezbollah’s foreign backers, Syria and Iran, Prime Minister Fouad Saniora and his Cabinet ministers have resolutely clung to power.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah and its allies have stepped up warnings of civil disobedience: a large-scale labor strike; the closure of roads and the airport; storming the government offices to oust Saniora. Such escalation would run the risk of sparking clashes by provoking the government and its supporters and, potentially, the army and security forces.

Demonstrators poured into Beirut from around the country Sunday, many of them bused into the capital from Shiite hinterlands. As boys banged drums, the mood was at times festive, but below the surface, frustration was building.

“It seems they don’t want to step down so easily,” said Mohammed el-Azwar, a 22-year-old protester who had been bused from the Bekaa Valley. “We did not expect this. But it’s just because of all the support they’re getting from abroad.”