Published on Thursday, March 10, 2005 by New York Newsday / Long Island
Beirut Crowd Shows Support for Syrian Role
by Mohamad Bazzi
BEIRUT -- They came in rickety buses, in overloaded cars and on foot, along roads surging with faith and fervor.
Wave after wave arrived Tuesday in Riad Solh Square, once a front line in Lebanon's 15-year civil war but now an emblem of Beirut's glistening downtown.
By midday, the crowd had swelled so large that people began gathering on highway overpasses and tunnels surrounding the square.
By the time the boisterous rally got under way, about 500,000 people -- an eighth of the country's entire population -- had assembled in one of the largest political gatherings in Lebanese history.
ost came out because of an appeal from one man: Hassan Nasrallah, a Shia Muslim cleric and leader of Hezbollah, Lebanon's main Shia party.
The rally was intended to show Lebanese support for Syria and to condemn U.S. pressure on Damascus to withdraw 14,000 troops from Lebanon.
More importantly, the large turnout signaled the Shias' intention to become the pivotal force in a country with an undecided future.
I ask our partners in Lebanon or those looking at us from abroad: Are all these hundreds of thousands of people puppets?" Nasrallah thundered at the rally, responding to criticism that his group is acting at Syria's behest.
"Is this entire crowd agents for the Syrians?"
The Shias are a plurality in Lebanon, making up 40 percent of the population of 4 million.
But since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri plunged Lebanon into a crisis, they had largely stayed on the sidelines -- until Tuesday, when they burst on the political scene in a sea of humanity.
"We want America to know that we're not a weak people like the Iraqis," said Mustafa Fatouni, 25, who traveled for two hours from the southern city of Qana. "The Americans will never be able to impose their will on us."
At Nasrallah's urging, the crowd did not wave Hezbollah's yellow banner, which shows a fist clenching an AK-47 assault rifle. Instead, only one flag was visible at the rally: the red-and-white Lebanese flag with its green cedar tree. It is the same symbol of national unity being used by the anti-Syria opposition, which has held daily rallies in downtown Beirut since Hariri's killing.
The massive response to Hezbollah's rally highlighted that there is no Lebanese consensus on a Syrian withdrawal, as the Bush administration has tried to argue. Without support from Shias, the anti-Syria opposition will be hard pressed to claim that it represents the majority of Lebanese. And the huge turnout Tuesday dwarfed all the opposition's rallies, the largest of which have drawn about 70,000 people.
"They are a speck in the sea," Ismael Assiyali, 72, said of the opposition rallies, smiling.
Assiyali came from the southern town of Dibin, which was occupied by Israel until 2000.
That's when an 18-year guerrilla war with Hezbollah finally pushed Israel to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon.
Assiyali's 23-year-old son, Ahmad, was a Hezbollah member who fought in the "Islamic Resistance" against Israel.
Assiyali said his son was killed along with two other Hezbollah fighters during an attack on an Israeli patrol in 1995.
"I came to this rally to honor the blood of martyrs like my son," said Assiyali, a stooping man with leathery hands. "And because Hassan Nasrallah asked us to."
The United States has branded Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but most Lebanese regard it as a dominant political force that cannot be eliminated from society.
The group runs a virtual mini-state, controlling the crowded Shia suburbs of Beirut and most of southern Lebanon.
It controls 12 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's parliament; it runs schools and hospitals; it operates a television station; and it offers small-business loans.
Hezbollah (Arabic for "Party of God") solidified its position in Lebanese society after it was credited with forcing the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Today, the party is once again using the specter of Israeli involvement in Lebanon as a tool to mobilize Shia masses.
Nasrallah declared Tuesday that the United States is pressuring Syria to withdraw at the behest of Israel.
"Let us tell the Americans: Don't interfere with our internal affairs. We will protect our country and unity," Nasrallah told the crowd during his 45-minute speech. "America, you have made a mistake in your calculations."
It was the first time Nasrallah had addressed a public gathering outside Hezbollah's stronghold in southern Beirut, a clear indication that he views Syrian support as critical to his party's future. Even among his opponents, Nasrallah is known as one of Lebanon's shrewdest political operators, and most compelling orators.
Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah and 30 smaller Muslim and Christian parties that support Syria will hold large rallies every two or three days in cities throughout Lebanon in the coming weeks.
That is intended to counter the anti-Syrian opposition and expose its organizational weaknesses in not having held rallies outside Beirut.
"Our movement does not end here," Nasrallah said. "It begins here."
He also repeatedly warned the United States to stay out of Lebanese politics and to stop pressuring Syria to end its political dominance over Beirut. "Lebanon is unique," Nasrallah said, addressing the Bush administration and drawing thunderous cheers from the crowd. "It's not Somalia, if you're thinking of a military intervention. It's not Ukraine, either. And it's not Georgia."
asrallah then recounted the last U.S. intervention in Lebanon, which ended with the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. That bombing, which has been widely blamed on Hezbollah, killed 241 troops and led to a U.S. withdrawal.
"I ask you Lebanese, are you afraid of the American naval fleets?" Nasrallah asked, prompting the crowd to boo and furiously wave its flags. "These fleets came in the past, and they were defeated. And if they come again, they will be defeated again."
Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Inc.