Sunday, March 06, 2005


Hezbollah protests in support of Syrian occupation

The militant group Hezbollah, largely on the fence since anti-Syrian protests erupted in Lebanon last month, switched gears Sunday and threw its weight behind Syria and its allies calling for massive rallies in Beirut to show loyalty to Damascus.

The move by Hezbollah's powerful and politically savvy leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, could prove crucial: The Iranian-founded, anti-Israeli Shiite Muslim group, which the United States calls a terrorist organization, has emerged as a key player during Lebanon's latest slide into political instability capable of tilting the balance either in favor of the pro-Syrian government or the anti-Syrian opposition.

Although Hezbollah is backed in part by Syria, the opposition had been courting the militia's support in its efforts to oust Syrian troops. Opposition leaders had said Hezbollah would not be forced to disarm if Syria leaves while also warning that if the group tilted toward Syria, it would lose the support of many Lebanese.

But as the Syrian army is being driven out of Lebanon under international pressure led by the United States, the 23-year-old Hezbollah movement, whose name means The Party of God, is clearly feeling the heat, believing it could be the next target.

Among other things, its existence as a military force could be at stake after the dizzying changes in recent weeks, which culminated Saturday with Syrian President Bashar Assad's announcement of a two-step withdrawal of his 14,000 troops after nearly 30 years in Lebanon.

A Lebanese official said Sunday that Syrian troops will start moving toward eastern Lebanon near the Syrian border in a pullback that will take two or three days. The withdrawal will begin right after a meeting in Damascus of the presidents of the two countries, Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad told The Associated Press.

Hezbollah had remained mostly neutral in the three weeks of anti-Syrian protests triggered by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Although it has participated in meetings of the pro-Syrian camp and has the backing of Syria, the group had not taken active part in any campaigns.

That changed on Sunday. Nasrallah called for a massive peaceful demonstration Tuesday in central Beirut to show loyalty to Syria. The protest, he said, was to denounce international interference, show support for resistance movements and foil any attempts to make a peace deal with Israel.

The protests also, despite his denials, are apparently designed to show Hezbollah's political strength.

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