Wednesday, March 9, 2005

BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah followers took to the streets in support of Syria yesterday, offering a sharp reminder that Lebanon’s popular uprising against Syrian occupation has not won over its 1.2 million Shi’ite residents.

In a display of political might intended to either cow the anti-Syrian opposition or enhance the standing of the Hezbollah militia in the coming power struggle, the massive crowd filled the city’s central square and spilled into side streets, waving Lebanese flags and chanting anti-American slogans.

The demonstration, the first sign of a backlash against President Bush’s push for greater democracy in the Middle East, demonstrated vividly that the radical Shi’ite militia-turned-political movement can draw far more supporters than the anti-Syrian opposition.

Even the funeral of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — whose assassination on Feb. 14 sparked a popular uprising of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims against Syrian domination — failed to draw anything close to the numbers that turned out in central Beirut yesterday.

The disciplined demonstrators flew only Lebanese flags, avoiding the Hezbollah banner, and limited their chants to anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli sentiment rather than criticism of the student-based movement that last week forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian Lebanese Cabinet.

The participants — who appeared to be a mix of hard-core Hezbollah activists, Syrians and Shi’ites from southern Lebanon — focused much of their anger on a resolution by the United Nations last year that demanded a Syrian pullout from Lebanon and the disarming of Hezbollah.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York yesterday that the resolution “is clear that there should be full withdrawal” of Syrian forces from Lebanon but noted that it contains no deadline.

Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, answered “yes” when asked whether all Syrian military and intelligence personnel would be out of all of Lebanon before parliamentary elections in May as demanded by President Bush.

“We are withdrawing our troops. They are actually being withdrawn today. We will do this as soon as possible, even long time before May,” he told CNN.

But for the marchers in Beirut, the timing of any withdrawal is a matter only for Syrians and Lebanese. Huge signs hung from cranes reading “Thank you Syria,” in English, and “No to foreign interference.”

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah drew huge roars when he addressed the crowd.

“I ask our partners in the country or those looking at us from abroad: Are all these hundreds of thousands of people puppets? Is all this crowd agents for the Syrians and intelligence agencies?” he said.

The turnout could be attributed to several factors in addition to the affinity many southern Lebanese Shi’ites feel for Syria because of its support for Hezbollah in its fight against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000.

Hezbollah is notoriously disciplined, and it was clear that many demonstrators had been trucked in from southern Lebanon. During renditions of the Lebanese national anthem, Lebanese in the crowd noticed that many of the participants were Syrians unfamiliar with the words.

With an estimated 500,000 guest workers in a country of about 4 million people, the Syrians have a large cultural presence in Lebanon and in the past have been cajoled, ordered or bribed into participating in “Lebanese” shows of support for Syria.

Formed with support from Iran during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah began as a Shi’ite militia fighting for an Islamic state in Lebanon and the withdrawal of Israeli troops.

After the Israelis withdrew in 2000, Hezbollah turned much of its energy and funding — thought to come mostly from Iran — toward social programs and the pursuit of political legitimacy. It now holds a dozen seats in the Lebanese parliament and hopes to substantially improve its standing in the elections.

A series of international terrorism operations, including attacks on Western targets in Beirut, during the 1980s were blamed on Hezbollah by the United States and Israel, both of which call it a terror organization.

But Hezbollah officials deny any involvement in the attacks, which include the Beirut bombings of the U.S. Embassy and a U.S. Marine barracks that killed more than 300 people.

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