- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

BENT JBAIL, Lebanon — Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militia that dominates southern Lebanon, used the fifth anniversary of Israel’s troop withdrawal to warn authorities not to try to disarm its fighters.

“Any hand that reaches out to our weapons is an Israeli hand that will be cut off,” the group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, told a rally in a rare public appearance.

“If anyone, anyone, thinks of disarming the resistance, we will fight them like the martyrs of Karbala,” he added, referring to the epic battle in southern Iraq more than 1,300 years ago that led to a permanent split in Islam between the Shi’ites and Sunnis.

For its rally, Hezbollah chose the border town of Bent Jbail, which Israel occupied for more than 22 years.

Although Hezbollah is idolized in the Arab world as the only army to defeat the Israeli military, the United States and Israel consider the group a terrorist organization.

The United Nations passed a resolution in September that compelled Syrian forces to leave Lebanon and demanded that militias in Lebanon give up their weapons.

The provision was aimed at Hezbollah, which maintains a significant military presence on Lebanon’s southern border.

With the end of 29 years of Syrian occupation, Hezbollah fears that it will be next to feel international pressure.

Sheik Nasrallah warned Israel not to return to Lebanon, but denied wanting to escalate tensions along the border. The Jewish state mounted a full-scale invasion of its neighbor in 1982 and withdrew in May 2000.

“We do not want to drag the region into a war. … We want to protect our country,” he said. “Any thought of disarming the resistance is madness.”

Hezbollah, a fundamentalist group that seeks an Islamic state in Lebanon similar to that in Iran, is widely respected in much of Lebanon, where it is credited with driving out the Israelis.

With 12 members of parliament and a vast network of social services, job training and hospitals that serve Lebanon’s impoverished Shi’ite community, the group also commands near-fanatical loyalty from Lebanon’s Shi’ites.

The U.S. government holds Hezbollah responsible for a series of bombings and kidnappings of American diplomatic and military targets in the 1980s and has classified it as a terrorist organization.

Yesterday’s rally also served as a political event, with speeches by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Hezbollah expects to increase its representation in parliament when a cycle of elections begins Sunday.

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