Published on Tuesday, March 8, 2005 by Reuters
Hizbollah Draws Vast Pro-Syrian Crowds in Beirut
by Nadim Ladki
BEIRUT -- Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Lebanese flooded central Beirut Tuesday for a pro-Syrian rally called by Hizbollah that dwarfed previous Lebanese protests demanding that Syrian troops quit Lebanon.
As the mainly Shi'ite Muslim crowds thronged Riad al-Solh square, a security source said Syrian forces had begun moving eastward under a phased withdrawal plan announced Monday.
"The redeployment to the Bekaa Valley has started in line with the first phase," the Lebanese source said.
The huge Hizbollah rally was the first major show of popular support for Syria in Beirut since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri touched off daily anti-Syrian protests, mainly involving Maronite Christians.
Those protests, which drew tens of thousands Monday, take place in Martyrs Square, just 300 meters (yards) from the scene of the gathering organized by Hizbollah and its allies.
The rival demonstrations, each using the Lebanese cedar flag to show patriotism, reveal deep rifts in Lebanon over Syria's role and international demands for Hizbollah to disarm.
Hizbollah and Lebanese security sources said one million people attended the rally, which Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called to thank Syria for its "sacrifices" in Lebanon and to oppose a U.N. resolution saying militias must disarm.
"I am here to express my opposition to resolution 1559 because it demands the disarming of the resistance. Hizbollah is not a militia. It deters Israeli aggression against Lebanon," 30-year-old demonstrator Mona Srour told Reuters.
Shi'ites, Lebanon's largest community, condemned Hariri's killing but few joined Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim critics of Syria's military and political role in the country. Shi'ites and many other Lebanese are proud of Hizbollah's role in forcing Israel to end its 22-year occupation of south Lebanon in 2000.
Popular agitation in Lebanon, combined with intense world pressure, has prompted Syria to announce plans to end its 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbor.
The Lebanese source did not say which positions the Syrians were evacuating, but witnesses reported troops on the move in several places on mountain ridges east of Beirut.
SYRIAN INTELLIGENCE AGENTS
The redeployment began after a Syrian-Lebanese military committee agreed on the details at a meeting in Damascus.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese counterpart Emile Lahoud agreed Monday to shift Syrian troops to eastern Lebanon by March 31. A statement said the Syrian and Lebanese military would then decide how long the Syrians stayed.
A Syrian official source in Damascus said Syrian security and intelligence men would leave Lebanon along with the troops.
This would meet a key demand by the United States and its allies, as well as the Lebanese opposition, for the departure of Syrian intelligence officers they accuse of calling the shots in Lebanon behind a facade of Lebanese state institutions.
The source gave no timetable for the second phase of the pullout, but said: "This doesn't mean it won't be soon."
The United States has dismissed the Syrian plan for failing to set a deadline for a full withdrawal.
Hizbollah, which began as a small guerrilla force devoted to ending Israeli occupation in the south, has developed into a sophisticated group with political, military and welfare bodies. It has several MPs in parliament and runs several charities.
The United States considers it a terrorist organization.
"Israel listen to our voices: We will not compromise and will not sell our honor to the foreigner," loudspeakers blared across the central Beirut square. "Our homeland is Arab."
"Bashar, with you we will not be shaken and the resistance will continue... Thanks for the Syrian blood that protected us from our enemies and the fire of civil war."
Bearded young men in black took charge of security, searching streets and even drainage holes for suspect objects.
"Thank you, Syria's Assad," a large banner said. "No to foreign interference," read another.
The crowds carried only Lebanese, not party, flags, in line with Nasrallah's instructions. They also waved posters of Assad and Lahoud.
Syrian forces are credited with helping ending the civil war that tore Lebanon apart. Christian, Muslim and Druze militias fought each other. Battles also erupted within the rival communities. About 150,000 people are thought to have died.
Lebanon, with only a caretaker government since the one led by Omar Karami resigned last week amid anti-Syrian protests, is due to hold a general election by May.
Lahoud was due to hold consultations with parliament on Wednesday before naming a prime minister-designate. Political sources said Karami appeared the favorite candidate.
© Reuters 2005