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Thousands in Beirut protest anti-Islam video in Hezbollah show of strength

By Babak Dehghanpisheh,

BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Beirut on Monday to protest the controversial video mocking the prophet Muhammad, a massive rally organized by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah that was also an attempt to show the party’s strength.

Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, made a rare public appearance and led the crowds in chants pledging martyrdom to the prophet Muhammad.

“The world should know our anger will not be a passing outburst but that this is the start of a serious movement that will continue all over the Muslim world to defend the prophet of God,” he told the crowd, to roars of approval. Nasrallah also warned the United States that if a film is released in addition to the anti­Islam video on YouTube, there will be “dangerous consequences.” The video supposedly promotes a full-length film.

The U.S. Embassy, which is a roughly 30-minute drive away from central Beirut, has begun destroying classified documents as a security precaution, the Associated Press reported. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut was the target of a car bomb in 1983 that killed 63 people; the U.S. Marine barracks was also attacked by a car bomb the same year, an incident with 242 fatalities. 

Hezbollah’s militia has long been the strongest military force in Lebanon, and its short but bloody war with Israel in 2006 left at least 1,100 Lebanese dead. Many of the group’s supporters still consider that conflict to be a victory against the Israelis.

The group also runs a strong political party and has members in parliament. The parliamentary faction allied with Hezbollah — known as the March 8 movement — is the governing coalition and nominated the prime minister, Najib Mikati, last year.

The demonstration Monday wound through Beirut’s predominantly Shiite southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold. Platforms and loudspeakers had been set up and organizers stoked the crowd with chants of “Death to America!” and “Israel is the enemy of Muslims!”

 “If we keep silent about this movie, then this will happen again,” said Zeinab, a 40-year-old housewife whose 7-year-old son was carrying a Hezbollah flag. “America is responsible. Whether it’s the people or the government. They are responsible.”

Protests against the controversial video flared Friday in Tripoli, the second-largest city in Lebanon and one that is predominantly Sunni. Demonstrators there torched a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and attempted to overrun a government building. One man was killed and more than a dozen people were injured after protesters clashed with police.

But Hezbollah supporters were noticeably absent from the streets of Beirut on Friday, and the group’s leaders did not call for public demonstrations that day, as Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon for a three-day visit. Hezbollah appears to have shown restraint in keeping its supporters off the streets until Monday so as not to disrupt the pope’s visit, which ended Sunday.

 It was also a savvy political move, analysts say, because Hezbollah is allied with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a largely Christian party led by Michel Aoun. Hezbollah’s leaders like to point to their alliance with the FPM to show that they have support beyond their mostly Shiite base. If Hezbollah had called for demonstrations during the pope’s visit, it would have probably irked their Christian political allies.

Thousands of supporters of the Shiite Amal party, an ally of Hezbollah, also joined Monday’s demonstration.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar television reported that a number of Christians had joined the crowds to condemn the controversial video. And some protesters made an effort to show that the demonstration was not an attempt to antagonize Christians or start civil strife. One young woman carried a sign that read “Jesus and Muhammad are prophets. We do not target Christ.”

 But the rally wasn’t about the controversial video alone. In recent months, Hezbollah’s carefully cultivated image as a supporter of the downtrodden and a symbol of resistance to Israel and the United States has been damaged as the group’s leaders have stood steadfastly by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amid an increasingly bloody crackdown against opposition forces.

The rally Monday was also an attempt to show that the political alliance that many observers refer to as the “axis of resistance” — Hezbollah, Syria and Iran — is holding strong. Demonstrators carried pictures of Assad and Syrian flags Monday, and some carried Iranian flags.

Hezbollah has called for demonstrations in other cities across Lebanon in the coming days. Sunni leaders also announced more protests. Sheik Ahmad Assir, a hard-line cleric based in the city of Sidon, announced a demonstration this week. 

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