Mass Pro-Syria Rally Shows Lebanese Split

Times Staff Writer

Pouring in from the countryside in a massive show of political force, hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah backers crammed into the Lebanese capital Tuesday to shout “Death to America!” and yell praise for Syria.

The swarms of people who answered the group’s call to protest pressure from the United States and its allies dwarfed the anti-Damascus crowds that had rallied in Beirut in recent weeks. The heavily Shiite Muslim crowd hoisted portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad and pumped fists skyward to the crack of drums.

Speaking before a crowd that stretched off into the distance, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah discounted the significance of opposition protesters that have camped out in the last three weeks calling for an end to Syrian domination of its neighbor.

“If you think that the government might fall or security might fall from a few demonstrations on a few streets and a few media outlets, then you’re very wrong,” Nasrallah said. “If you really want to defend freedom in Lebanon and democracy in Lebanon, then you must look with your two eyes: Are we not the people of the Lebanon you love?”

The Hezbollah supporters denounced the United Nations, the United States, France and especially Israel for pressuring Syria to obey a U.N. resolution to withdraw its troops.


The demonstration marked a major shift in the political crisis over Syria’s domination of this Mediterranean country. Tuesday’s crowds left no doubt that Lebanon is a nation divided over the role of Syria -- and that the split had exacerbated some of the sectarian fault lines that in 1975 pitched the country into a 15-year civil war.

“I have four kids, and sometimes at night I can’t sleep because I’m so worried that my kids will live what I lived during the war,” said Maha Dbouk, a 34-year-old Shiite businesswoman who picked her way through the crowds with a sign reading, “No to foreign intervention.”

Until Tuesday, Shiite Muslims, who are believed to make up about half of Lebanon’s population, had been notably silent in the debate over Syria’s pervasive influence. Opposition leaders and the demonstrators who have been calling for Syrian withdrawal under the slogan “Independence 2005" have portrayed themselves as representing popular opinion.

Analysts say that many Shiites remain loyal to Syria and are wary of an opposition-led government that might emerge after a military withdrawal. Some Hezbollah members are critical of Syria’s control over Lebanon’s affairs, but the group is funded by Iran and Syria and views Damascus as a counterweight to their archfoe, Israel. Hezbollah won widespread popular support after its militia took credit for driving the Israeli army from Lebanon in 2000. Apart from its militia, Hezbollah has a powerful bloc in parliament and sponsors a broad network of hospitals, orphanages, schools and recreational centers. The group even maintains its own satellite television station.

The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and believes its militia was responsible for an attack that killed more than 200 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983.

Political unrest has roiled Syria and Lebanon since former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated last month. Many enraged Lebanese blamed Hariri’s death on Damascus, and thousands of predominantly Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim protesters surged into the streets in an eruption of anti-Syrian anger.

Speaking in Washington, President Bush sent a message Tuesday to the anti-Syrian forces, who continued their own protests several blocks away separated by Lebanese army tanks.

“All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience,” Bush said. “The American people are on your side. Millions across the Earth are on your side.”

Syria has said many times that its government had nothing to do with Hariri’s death, but the pressure of protests in Beirut proved to be unbearable. The Syria-backed Beirut government collapsed, and then Syria’s allies began to press Damascus to remove its 14,000 or more soldiers from Lebanon.

In a speech Saturday, Assad pledged to pull his troops back to the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border. The concession was seen as a humbling blow to the Damascus government. But as Assad ponders whether to heed international demands for a full retreat, Hezbollah has given him some badly needed support.

The men and women who massed here Tuesday said they were grateful to Syria for keeping the peace after the civil war. They praised the thousands of Syrian soldiers who died fighting in Lebanon and romanticized the ancient ties between the two countries.

“The Americans and the French want the country to be divided,” said Ali Htit, a 33-year-old laborer who left his three children and rode a bus five hours from Baalbek to attend the rally. “I am afraid of civil war. Hariri was killed so we could turn on each other.”

Hezbollah sent rickety school buses across the country to carry the crowds to Beirut. Nasrallah had ordered his followers to carry the Lebanese flag in a show of national unity.

Tuesday’s protests carried a note of menace from Hezbollah, Arabic for “Party of God.” Hezbollah security officers set up roadblocks and took over the rooftops around the square. The trademark Hezbollah emblem, a fist clutching a gun, was not seen. Making a rare public appearance in downtown Beirut, Nasrallah assured the crowds that more Hezbollah demonstrations would follow.

“Our movement does not end here, but it starts from here,” Nasrallah said. “Every two or three days there will be a people’s gathering in one of the cities throughout Lebanon.”

Hezbollah’s show of force comes as the party girds for a fight over its future. There is growing pressure within Lebanon for Hezbollah to put aside militancy and reinvent itself as a purely political force. On Tuesday, Hezbollah demonstrators weren’t calling for Syrian soldiers to stay in Lebanon. Instead, they complained about Syria being humiliated by foreign pressures. Most of all, they assailed U.N. resolution 1559, a U.S.-and-French-sponsored statement that calls for the retreat of foreign soldiers from Lebanon and for the country’s militias to disarm.

“We tell you we reject 1559,” said Nasrallah, who addressed his followers from a balcony overlooking the square, a Lebanese flag spread behind him. “If democracy means the majority, then the majority rejects 1559.”

In Beirut, the Hezbollah crowd swarmed over gardens and side streets near the United Nations building. There was an edgier tone to these demonstrations than the ones staged by university students, businessmen and homemakers in recent weeks.

Much of the Hezbollah crowd came from the country. The men’s hands were roughened by labor, and they marched in work boots and bluejeans. Many of the women wore hijab, or Islamic head scarves, and flowing black robes. Westerners in the crowd were treated with hard stares, and children shoved through the crowd yelling, “America, Israel, terrorist!”

“The opposition said they’re the authority and that the decision should be theirs,” said Mustapha Fatuni, a 25-year-old from Qana in southern Lebanon. “But we tell them they’re out of their minds, and we’re the people of pure hearts.”

A few blocks away, the opposition protesters were gathered at their usual post in Martyrs’ Square. Impenetrable lines of Lebanese tanks and soldiers blocked the roads between to keep the two groups segregated.

At Martyrs’ Square, a few hundred demonstrators lingered as the last light faded from the sky. The mood was melancholy.

They had exulted in pushing the government out of office and seeing the beginning of a Syrian withdrawal. Tuesday’s demonstration came as a dash of cold water.

“We have to accept these things,” said 23-year-old accounting student Ali Khoder, who stood with his leather coat wrapped tight around him and stared off in the direction of the sea. “If they represent half, we represent the other half.”