BEIRUT, March 8 -- Hundreds of thousands of people on Tuesday celebrated Syria's long military presence in Lebanon, cheering the leader of the armed Hezbollah movement as he warned the United States and the Lebanese opposition movement not to upset the country's volatile political system.
The rally, organized by Hezbollah, was the largest in three weeks of political upheaval here, filling a huge plaza in central Beirut and spilling down streets and highways for miles in every direction. The massive turnout suggested that Lebanon's anti-Syrian movement would no longer dominate the political debate as it has in recent weeks, and Hezbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, pointedly warned those who favor Syria's withdrawal and the disarmament of his Shiite Muslim party that they do not represent most Lebanese.
Protesters mass near the U.N. building in Beirut. Lebanese officials said 1.6 million people attended Tuesday's rally; other estimates were closer to 500,000.
(Hussein Malla -- AP)
Hezbollah: A Party With Clout|
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History: Formed in 1982 with Iranian backing during Israels invasion of Lebanon. Though secretive in early years, it was linked to the bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in 1983, the bombing of the U.S. Embassy that same year and the kidnappings of about 50 foreigners in the 1980s.
Leadership: While factions remain, clear leadership is exercised by Hassan Nasrallah, a middle-ranking Shiite Muslim cleric who took over after Israel assassinated Abbas Musawi
Military: Fought Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon and the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army militia and was credited with weakening Israels resolve to stay in the country. It is believed to field thousands of armed supporters. They have short-range, surface-to-surface Katyusha rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and rifles. Hezbollah has support of the Lebanese government and its Syrian backers and refuses to disarm as demanded by a U.N. resolution passed last year.
Constituency: Draws support from Lebanons 1.2 million Shiite Muslims, the countrys largest religious group.
Funding: Iran provides $10 million to $20 million monthly.
Politics: Seeks an Islamic government for Lebanon, which has 18 officially recognized religious groupings, but has in recent years said an Islamic state cannot be imposed by force. Controls a 12-seat bloc in Lebanons 128-seat parliament. Runs TV and radio stations, weekly newspaper, Internet site.
Charity work: Operates schools, hospitals, dental clinics. Provides drinking water to south Beirut areas, rebuilds roads and houses destroyed in fighting in south.
SOURCE: Associated Press
Hundreds of chanting protesters held aloft pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad and placards reading, in English, "All Our Disasters Come From America" and "No for the American Intervention." While providing stark evidence of the size of Syria's support in Lebanon, the rally also underscored Hezbollah's deep concerns over foreign demands that it give up a potent arsenal that is a legacy of civil war.
"I say to the Syrians, 'We are the Lebanese who are loyal, decent people,' " Nasrallah told the raucous crowd. "Syria is not only present as an army. It is present in the heart, the mind and the future of Lebanon."
The demonstration exposed the deep and potentially dangerous divide that has opened up in the weeks since the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which many here blame on Syria's intelligence agencies. Since then, an alliance of Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim parties has formed to oppose Lebanon's pro-Syrian government, staging regular demonstrations that helped force out Prime Minister Omar Karami last week.
Lebanon's Shiite plurality had remained largely on the sidelines, allowing the mostly middle- and upper-class opposition movement to rally daily near Hariri's grave on Martyrs' Square. Those demonstrations, carried live over pro-opposition television stations here, have given the impression that a majority of Lebanese favor a complete Syrian retreat from the country.
On Tuesday, however, the throngs of Syrian supporters who gathered two blocks away, on Riad el-Solh Square, challenged that image. The exact size of the crowd was difficult to determine. Lebanese officials said 1.6 million people attended the rally, but more conservative estimates placed the number at roughly 500,000. Christian, Druze and Sunni parties were represented, but the crowd appeared to consist mostly of followers of Hezbollah and Amal, the second-largest Shiite party.
The rally was held a day after Assad announced plans to pull back Syria's 15,000 troops in Lebanon to the eastern Bekaa Valley by the end of the month, while leaving open the timetable for a full withdrawal. Those terms appear to meet the requirements of the 1989 accord that ended Lebanon's civil war but fall short of Bush administration demands that Syria end its military and intelligence presence before May, when Lebanon is to hold parliamentary elections.
Nasrallah said Tuesday that "only two governments should decide whether Syria should stay or go from Lebanon, not international pressure."
Hezbollah has relied for years on Syria's ability to guarantee its flow of arms and money from Iran, a Shiite theocracy that views the party as its bridge to the Arab world. The Bush administration has classified Hezbollah, as well as its satellite television channel, as a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah controls an important 12-seat bloc in Lebanon's parliament. But with its elaborate social services network and highly disciplined party structure, the party would likely claim greater power if the current system of apportioning political power by religious sect were removed. In recent days, Nasrallah has indicated that he favors enacting all the provisions of the 1989 peace accord, which calls for the eventual dissolution of the power-sharing system to make way for direct voting.
But Nasrallah's most immediate concern is defusing the foreign pressure on Hezbollah to relinquish its weapons. A U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, which passed last year, would require Hezbollah to disarm. But Nasrallah has argued that the group needs its weapons as a check against Israel, which it claims still occupies Lebanese land in the Shebaa Farms border area. The United Nations considers the 100-square-mile parcel to be part of Syria.
In a Zogby poll of 1,250 Lebanese conducted in November, 58 percent of those surveyed said they opposed the U.N. resolution, engineered by the United States and France. Nearly half also said Syrian-Lebanese relations needed "improvement or restructuring outside American and French interventions" -- a message that resounded Tuesday in chants and speeches throughout downtown Beirut.
Columns of buses began flowing into downtown just after noon and lined streets for miles. Scores of men dressed in black, Hezbollah's grim-faced security detail, monitored intersections and took up positions on the tops of buildings overlooking the teeming plaza and narrow side streets.
Like the opposition, the demonstrators set aside traditional party banners to carry the red-and-white Lebanese flag, which also served as Nasrallah's backdrop during his nearly hour-long speech.
Nasrallah called on the opposition to join pro-Syrian parties at a "roundtable" to discuss forming a national unity government that would manage the country until after the parliamentary elections. But moments later his tone hardened. Evoking last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which forced the results of a rigged election to be overturned, Nasrallah said, "Lebanon is not Ukraine."
"Lebanon is Lebanon, a unique state," said Nasrallah, speaking from the balcony of a building overlooking the square. "If anyone thinks they can kick out the government and disrupt national discipline with some slogans, demonstrations and a TV station, he is wrong and suspect."
But Nasrallah saved his toughest criticism for the United States, tacitly reminding the cheering crowd of the 1983 bombings of a military barracks here that killed 241 U.S. Marines. Hezbollah's early followers have been linked to the bombing, as well as another that year at the U.S. Embassy that killed 63 people, 17 of them American. The attacks prompted the Reagan administration to pull out of a U.N. peacekeeping force a few months later.
"In the past, they have come to Lebanon, and they were defeated," Nasrallah said. "If they come again, they will be defeated. Do not interfere."
Afterward, Wael Abou Faour, a Druze member of the opposition, acknowledged that "Hezbollah has a large mass following, and we have always known that. What was good about today is that it was peaceful. But I don't think it will change the political equilibrium of the country or the opposition's demands."