Hezbollah Chief Defiant at Huge Rally

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 23, 2006

BEIRUT, Sept. 22 -- In the mix of theater and pulpit that makes for a Hezbollah rally, the group's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, appeared Friday before hundreds of thousands of supporters for the first time since its war with Israel ended last month.

His message was defiant, with the bravado the crowd expected: Hezbollah was stronger than before the war, he said, and it still possessed more than 20,000 rockets. Only the creation of a strong Lebanese government, he added, would lead to its disarmament, as demanded by the United Nations.

Kamal Ribai, a shy, soft-spoken businessman in the crowd with his son and two daughters, thrust his fist into the air.

"At your command, Nasrallah!" he shouted, as six balloons floated above him carrying Lebanese and Hezbollah flags.

In an anxious and unsettled time in Lebanon, the Shiite Muslim group organized its largest show of force since a cease-fire went into effect Aug. 14. The spectacle filled a 37-acre lot, about a mile from the group's war-wrecked headquarters in a Beirut suburb, with flag-waving, boisterous supporters.

For the movement and the rest of the country, the rally signaled Hezbollah's direction after a battle it has proclaimed a "divine victory." Sounding less strident than some had expected, Nasrallah said he would seek a government that better represented his group and its allies, ridiculed the prime minister and scoffed at the attempts of "any army in the world" to seize its weapons.

But the country's future was perhaps better suggested by the scenes that unfolded among people in the crowd, some of whom had trekked two days on foot from southern Lebanon to join what Hezbollah called a festival of victory. In moments sometimes quiet, sometimes shrill, Lebanon's fault lines were exposed: Here was a country perched between a culture of resistance to Israel and a desire to reach an accommodation with it. Chants and iconography reflected the cult of personality around Nasrallah and confidence in the power of the long-downtrodden Shiite community in a country whose various sects -- Christian, Sunni and Druze -- often see one's strength as the other's weakness.

"This is all of Lebanon you see around you," Ribai said confidently, waving his hand. "It's all of Lebanon. Look at it."

"The real majority," he said, referring to Hezbollah and its allies. "As long as they stay united, nothing will go wrong."

Hezbollah's call for the rally this week unleashed a wave of anxiety and anticipation in Beirut. Some saw Nasrallah's appearance as a way to reinforce the notion of victory to his supporters, who bore the brunt of a 33-day conflict. Others saw it, more darkly, as a first step toward delivering the state to Hezbollah.

"What will Nasrallah say at the festival of victory?" read the banner headline in Friday editions of as-Safir, a leading Beirut daily.

"It's a big moment," Ribai said. "It's a big moment for all of Lebanon."

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