BEIRUT, March 6 -- The leader of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement that for weeks has stood on the sidelines of Lebanon's political upheaval, called Sunday for national demonstrations against what he characterized as foreign influences seeking to expel Syria, a key sponsor of the party, from the country.
Hassan Nasrallah, a Shiite cleric who serves as Hezbollah's secretary general, was critical in particular of the United States and France. His announcement dashed the hopes of Lebanese opposition leaders that the large, disciplined movement would join their cause to drive Syrian troops and intelligence services from Lebanon.
Lebanese demonstrate support for Syrian President Bashar Assad near the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Beirut.
(Jamal Saidi -- Reuters)
The first demonstration is scheduled for Tuesday in Beirut, along an avenue near the central square where Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition movement has staged round-the-clock protests since the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Nasrallah appeared after what he called an "emergency meeting" of more than 30 political parties aligned with the Syrian government, which is facing international pressure and a popular uprising here to end its 30-year presence in Lebanon. The meeting was convened hours after Syrian President Bashar Assad outlined a gradual shift of Syria's 15,000 troops in Lebanon to the countries' common border, a plan criticized by U.S. and French officials who have demanded an immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces.
Lebanese officials said Sunday that the redeployment would begin after a meeting on Monday between Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud in Damascus, the Syrian capital, to set a timetable.
"Freedom means that we decide for ourselves the best way to address what we see today as clear intervention of the United States and France in Lebanese internal affairs," Nasrallah said at a news conference in the Shiite suburbs of south Beirut. "The opposition must give us explanations regarding the foreign intervention. We must convince each other that only true sovereignty means independence."
Nasrallah's defiant position comes as an emerging Lebanese alliance of Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim parties has turned its attention to winning parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring in the hopes of forming a government free of Syrian influence. Nasrallah appeared to serve notice that Hezbollah and a variety of smaller pro-Syrian parties intended to mount a unified campaign to prevent a government hostile to Syrian interests from emerging after the elections.
The Lebanese opposition movement has lacked large numbers of Shiites, who account for a plurality of Lebanon's 4 million people. But the movement's leaders said Sunday that they were heartened by Nasrallah's call for peaceful demonstrations and promises to respect political differences.
"In the end we are calling for a democratic country, and so these demonstrations should be allowed," said Ghattas Khoury, a member of parliament who belongs to Hariri's legislative bloc. "If they win the elections, we will go along with them. If we win, then they should go along with us."
With an extensive social services network and an armed wing celebrated here for helping end the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah is perhaps the most formidable player in the power-sharing system among religious-based parties. Linked to the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, Hezbollah is now recognized as a legal political party in Lebanon and controls a 12-seat bloc in parliament. The United States has placed Hezbollah and its satellite television channel on its list of terrorist organizations, and the European Union is considering adopting a similar designation.
Nasrallah's ability to mobilize perhaps hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah followers for demonstrations, in addition to other large Shiite, Sunni and pan-Arab parties that will likely take part, threatens to expose a deep gulf in Lebanese society that Syrian officials have warned could widen into the kind of sectarian strife that fueled Lebanon's 15-year civil war.
Assad, in a speech to parliament Saturday, said: "We should not remain in Lebanon one day after there is a Lebanese consensus over our presence," something Hezbollah's counter-demonstrations are likely to show does not exist.
Syria, which first sent troops to Lebanon in 1975 at the invitation of its embattled Christian president, has long served as the gatekeeper for Iranian-supplied arms and money flowing to Hezbollah. The party, in turn, has become a proxy army for Syria against Israel along Lebanon's southern border.
A U.N. Security Council resolution approved last year with U.S. and French support called on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and for Hezbollah to rapidly disarm. Under the 1989 peace accord that ended Lebanon's civil war, Hezbollah was allowed to keep its arsenal of small weapons and rockets because Israel at the time still occupied parts of southern Lebanon.