Hezbollah Chief Rallies Protesters

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 8, 2006

BEIRUT, Dec. 7 -- Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, vowed Thursday to keep protesters in downtown Beirut until a new Lebanese government is installed, but insisted that his group and its allies would not provoke another civil war in Lebanon.

The speech, the first by Nasrallah to the protesters who took to the streets Friday, underlined his skill as a tactician as well as the depth of the stalemate that has paralyzed political life here for nearly six weeks. In the hour-long address, broadcast live to the crowd on two sprawling screens, he trod a fine line: attempting to keep his supporters mobilized, often with provocative rhetoric, while urging restraint to forestall clashes; and holding the door open to negotiations while insisting that Lebanese officials had been complicit with Israel in waging this summer's war, in Hezbollah's strongest attack yet on the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"We will not be dragged into any kind of strife even if you kill a thousand of us," he said as the crowd cheered and waved Lebanese flags in a square just walking distance from government headquarters, where Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence behind barbed wire and barricades. "We will not raise weapons in the face of anyone."

But he added, "Those betting on our surrender are delusional."

The crisis, the sharpest in Lebanon since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990, has taken on sectarian overtones, with brawls repeatedly breaking out between Shiite Muslims, who back Hezbollah, and Sunni Muslims, whose leaders support Siniora's government. The country's Christians remain divided between the two camps. To varying degrees, both sides have played the sectarian card, mobilizing their communities in shows of solidarity.

In a sign of how tense relations have become, Lebanon's army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, pledged Thursday that the army, which split during the civil war, would remain united and urged his soldiers to set aside their sectarian affiliations.

Both sides have insisted that time is on their side, that the door remains open to negotiations and that neither will give in. The mood at the government compound, the Serail, remains calm, even businesslike. Hezbollah and its allies -- a Christian faction loyal to a former general, Michel Aoun, and a Shiite movement known as Amal -- have called for another mass demonstration on Sunday.

"We are sticking to our position. We are standing fast, believing in the justness of our position," Siniora told a group of supporters Thursday at the Serail. "We are open with our heart and extend our hands. We will stay on."

Nasrallah's speech Thursday bore the hallmarks of his style: a lecture-like air that builds to a climax, punctuated with rhetoric familiar from this summer's war. The Hezbollah leader returned time and again to the theme of national salvation and repeatedly invoked the determination of loyalists and supporters during the 33-day war as proof of their resilience now. But he insisted that the crowd remain "peaceful, civil and civilized," scolding the protesters for chants that were overly personal, insulting or sectarian.

"We will stay in the street, but our doors are open," he said. "We will not leave the streets until our goal is achieved, our goal to save Lebanon."

Behind the screen, strobe lights flashed slogans: "We want a clean government," one read. Placards were also held up. "The government of Feltman," one proclaimed in a reference to U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman, "we'll overthrow it."

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