About 10,000 Lebanese Shiites swarmed into the ancient Roman ruins here today to commemorate the disappearance of a revered religious leader seven years ago. They gave Amal leader Nabih Berri a cheering welcome as their most forceful advocate.
Gathering in front of Baalbek's Bacchus Temple, the throngs climbed on chairs and broke into cheers as Berri forced his way to the podium and squatted on the wooden stage in a bid to calm the pandemonium.
"March on, march on, oh Nabih. We are your soldiers for liberation," the crowd shouted, a recitative so far reserved for Imam Musa Sadr, the spiritual leader of the Shiite community and founding father of the Amal movement who disappeared seven years ago while on a visit to Libya.
The Shiite community has blamed Libyan Col. Muammar Qaddafi for their imam's failure to return and many insist that Sadr will reappear one day. Berri, 47, was a disciple of Sadr's in the early 1960s.
Some see Berri as a possible substitute, while his opponents in the Shiite camp are rooting for Sheik Mohammed Mehdi Chamseddine, the vice president of the Supreme Shiite Council. Chamseddine's absence from today's celebrations was conspicuous.
The rally was held in Syrian-controlled territory that is a bastion of Shiite extremists. It was an embarrassing challenge to the sect's Hezbollah group, which is known for its disdain of Berri and his smooth politicking.
For Sahar Najjar, 20, a young woman in jeans who came from the nearby village of Shmestar hoping to catch a glimpse of Berri, Sadr was the inspiration for Shiites to "become what they are in Lebanon today." If he does not come back, she said, "there is a substitute . . . Nabih Berri. He is the protector of the Shiites now. He does not have to be a religious man."
Fatima Chamas, 17, wearing a chador, said Berri is a "consummate leader, but Imam Sadr must come back to us, because he is the spoken Koran."
Portraits of Sadr, Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Berri covered the pink stone of Roman ruins as a brass band played and an Amal honor guard marched.
"God is great, God is one, Khomeini is commander and victory for Islam," was a refrain often repeated with clenched fists and roars of approval. Berri and Amal commanders were angered by their inability to maintain discipline, but it did not seem to bother the crowds. "We are all Amal, our blood is for Amal," cried Mahmoud Salloum, 25, shouting down from the branches of a mulberry tree, from which he viewed the proceedings.
Amal militiamen reclined on the heavy stonework of the Temple of Bacchus, the god of wine and women, holding their machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at the ready.
Berri offered an eight-point proposal for solving the Lebanese crisis. Wearing a green safari suit, the Shiite leader -- who is also minister of justice and state minister for southern Lebanon -- lashed out at the governments of oil-rich Arab nations and Libya. He vowed that southern Lebanese, who he said had financed the National Resistance Movement, would also provide for the reconstruction of Lebanon.
Berri called on the movement, which fought against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, to "fight the Lebanese regime in the same way it is fighting Israel." Berri proposed a six-man presidential council with presidents alternating among Lebanon's main religious sects. The current system ensures a Maronite Christian president.
Among Berri's demands were a new electoral law counting all of Lebanon's population of 3 million as one constituency, a move to curb political sectarianism.
Thousands of Hezbollah supporters traveled to Tyre in southern Lebanon to hold a rival rally commemorating Sadr's disappearance. Many were prevented from entering Tyre by Amal militiamen who fired warning shots to disperse them.