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Many Arabs Applaud Hezbollah

Hezbollah, emerging as the new champion of the Palestinians, has managed, for the most part, to close sectarian ranks and win the support of Sunni majorities in most Arab countries.

Several hard-line Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, however, have refused to support Hezbollah's fight against Israel. They believe Shiites are not proper Muslims and have accused Hezbollah of serving Iranian expansionist ambitions in the Arab world.

The Web site of a popular preacher, Nasser al-Omar, tells followers that contrary to Hezbollah's claims, it is not fighting on behalf of Sunni Muslims in Palestine and is instead a tool in Iran's hands.

But prominent and popular clerics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have defended the militia, saying this was a time to remain united and bury sectarian animosities.

Al-Qaeda, whose anti-Shiite views have often been blamed for the sectarian violence in Iraq, came out in support of the group in a taped statement aired on the Arabic-language television network al-Jazeera.

In an effort to establish a link between the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and Hezbollah's fight against Israel, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, on Thursday called on Muslims worldwide to stand up against what he called "the Zionist-Crusader war" in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

But many Arabs were not buying it. Al-Qaeda has steadily been losing support because of its perceived support of sectarian violence in Iraq.

"Zawahiri is not any better than [President] Bush. They're both terrorists who kill innocent people," said Ahmad Sabri, 19, who was having lunch with a friend at a Chili's on Palestine Street.

But Sabri defended Hezbollah rocket attacks that have killed Israeli civilians.

"I'm a political science student, and according to international law, as long as one inch of Arab land is occupied, as long as one Palestinian or Lebanese is in an Israeli jail, Hezbollah has the right to strike anywhere in Israel, even Tel Aviv," he said.

Arabs for the most part have celebrated Hezbollah's attacks in Israel. "I was so happy," Fatani, sitting at home in jeans watching al-Jazeera, recalled feeling when she heard about Hezbollah strikes against Israel. "It was the first time in 50 years that Israelis feel what Palestinians and Lebanese have been going through."

When al-Jazeera announced a new Hezbollah strike on an Israeli chemical plant, she looked toward the sky and said, "God be praised," then got down on the floor, her forehead to the carpet, and recited a short prayer of thanks.

In demonstrations in Egypt, people carried posters of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah and the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdal Nasser, seen as the father of Arab nationalism.

Sabri, the Saudi student, said he wished he could demonstrate to express his anger at events or volunteer to fight in Lebanon, but that it was not allowed by the government.

So instead Sabri, who wears his long hair in a ponytail under a cream-and-orange turban, prays for Hezbollah's victory and shows his support by driving around with a picture of Nasrallah taped on the back of his red and white Mini Cooper. If the authorities ask him to remove the picture, he said, he would replace it with a sign that reads, "God bless those who engage in miscalculated adventures."

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