- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

BEIRUT — Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told hundreds of thousands of supporters at a “victory” rally yesterday that his guerrillas have 20,000 rockets left after the war with Israel and will not surrender their arsenal unless a stronger Lebanese government is in place.

The gathering that sprawled over a swath of bombed-out south Beirut was a defiant show of Hezbollah strength and a challenge to the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

It also aimed to demonstrate that Hezbollah was not weakened by U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese troops deploying across southern Lebanon with a mandate to rein in the Shi’ite guerrillas.

Police estimated 800,000 people — mostly Shi’ites but including some Christians — filled the 37-acre lot to hear Sheik Nasrallah, forming a sea of waving yellow Hezbollah banners, mixed with a smaller number of Lebanese flags.

In his first public appearance since Israel launched its offensive against Hezbollah on July 12, Sheik Nasrallah called for the formation of a new government. He repeatedly attacked Mr. Siniora’s administration, saying it was weak and unable to protect Lebanon from Israel.

“Tears don’t protect anyone,” the black-turbaned cleric said in a jab at Mr. Siniora, who wept several times in speeches during the Israeli assault as he pleaded for international support.

Sheik Nasrallah said his group would keep its arms until Lebanon has a stronger government. Giving up weapons now “under this government … means leaving Lebanon exposed before Israel to kill and detain and bomb whomever they want, and clearly we will not accept that,” he said.

Hezbollah’s push for a larger presence in government could deepen tensions in a country already sharply divided over the war that killed hundreds of Lebanese.

A stronger Hezbollah political role would also blunt efforts by the United States and Israel to weaken the group and decrease the influence of its ally, Syria.

Former President Amin Gemayel said parts of Sheik Nasrallah’s speech were “dangerous.”

“He is linking giving up Hezbollah’s weapons to regime change in Lebanon and … to drastic changes on the level of the Lebanese government,” Mr. Gemayel said.

Although Sheik Nasrallah said in an interview that he would not have authorized the capture of two Israeli soldiers, which precipitated Israel’s attack on Hezbollah, if he had known it would trigger such a response, the Hezbollah leader proclaimed that his forces now are not weaker.

“No army in the world will be able to make us drop the weapons from our hands,” Sheik Nasrallah told the crowd, which cheered and waved hundreds of Hezbollah flags.

He boasted that his fighters would not be affected by the U.N. and Lebanese troops monitoring the borders and airport and patrolling the coast with warships to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

“I say to all those who want to close the seas, skies and the deserts and the border and the enemy, the resistance today possesses more — I underline that — more than 20,000 rockets,” Sheik Nasrallah said.

“The resistance … has regained all its military, organizational and weapons capabilities. The resistance today is stronger than it was on the eve of July 12,” he said.

The 20,000 figure was even higher than the number of rockets Hezbollah claimed to possess before the fighting — between 10,000 and 12,000 — and Sheik Nasrallah suggested he had hidden the true size of the arsenal. The guerrillas fired nearly 4,000 rockets into Israel during the fighting.

Israel lashed back after the speech, saying Sheik Nasrallah was issuing a challenge to the Lebanese government and the international community.

“The international community can’t afford to have this Iranian-funded extremist spit in the face of the organized community of nations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem.

Of Sheik Nasrallah’s claim to 20,000 rockets, Mr. Regev said that under the cease-fire, Hezbollah “shouldn’t have any rockets.”

The U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended the war Aug. 14 calls for Hezbollah to eventually disarm. U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese troops say they won’t seek out and confiscate hidden Hezbollah arsenals, but they do intend to take weapons they encounter and stop new ones from arriving.

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