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Hezbollah Chief Leads Huge Rally

New York Times | September 22, 2006
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN and JOHN O’NEIL

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 22 — Defying Israel and the United States, Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, appeared at a giant “victory’’ rally today and declared that the militant group had 20,000 rockets and would never disarm.

“No army in the world is strong enough to disarm us,’’ he told a cheering crowd that appeared to number in the hundreds of thousands.

Mr. Nasrallah’s very presence here today was meant to underscore the idea that Hezbollah had triumphed over Israel, which has vowed to kill him. It was the first time Mr. Nasrallah had been seen in public since July 12th, when he announced the capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, the event that precipitated the 34-day war.

His speech was both a fiery tirade addressed to Israel and the United States, and a giddy celebration of Hezbollah’s strengthened position within Lebanon in the wake of the war.

“During the war, I said we had 11,000 rockets, but it was really more,’’ he told the crowd.

“Is it 12,000?’’ some members of the audience called out.

“Keep counting!’’ he replied.

“Is it 13?’’

“Forget counting!’’ he said, to hearty laughter. “We haven’t even begun rearming, and we have more than 20,000!”

Israeli officials have estimated that Hezbollah has about 10,000 rockets now, mostly short-range Katyusha missiles that could not reach Israeli territory if the group is prevented from operating south of the Litani River, the area where a United Nations-backed international peacekeeping force is being deployed under the ceasefire agreement.

In one passage of Mr. Nasrallah’s speech that was part olive branch, part power-play, he called on the pro-Western ruling coalition in Lebanon to step down in favor of a new government of national unity — one in which Hezbollah would probably hold more than the two Cabinet seats it won in last spring’s elections.

He also warned the U.N. peacekeepers not to spy on “the resistance.’’

Mr. Nasrallah congratulated the crowd for what he called a “divine, historic and strategic victory’’ over the United States as well as Israel, and said the conflict was “an American war” because the United States provided the arms, planning and diplomatic support that made Israel’s attacks possible.

When the fighting ended, he said, it was not because of the suffering of the Lebanese or any weakness on the part of Hezbollah, but because “the Zionists realized that if it continued, it would be a catastrophe.”

“The Americans agreed to stop the war, not for the women, not for the children of the Lebanese — they stopped the war for Israel,” he said.

He said the Bush administration had allowed the war to go forward as part of the plan to create “a new Middle East.”

“This Middle East was illegitimate,” he said, and its defeat has become an inspiration “for people who fight for their freedom and dignity” around the world.

The rally today demonstrated Hezbollah’s organizational abilities, which have allowed it to take the lead in the reconstruction of southern Lebanon, reinforcing the sense there that it, rather than the central government, is the dominant force in the country.

Many people at the rally said they walked to Beirut from southern Lebanon, setting out earlier in the week.

The vast area in the Beirut suburbs where the event was held was filled with one-piece white plastic chairs that had been set up the day before, with a hat of red, green or white — Lebanon’s national colors — on each chair. Thousands of yellow Hamas flags were waved steadily during the speeches and the martial choral music that preceded Mr. Nasrallah’s surprise appearance.

Some Lebanese have criticized Hezbollah for its role in the start of the war. Shortly after the ceasefire, Mr. Nasrallah said in a televised address that the cross-border raid and capture of the two Israeli soldiers was a miscalculation, and that he would not have ordered the raid if he had known how fierce the response from Israel would be.

But today he said that part of the Israeli and American plan had been to set the rest of Lebanon against Hezbollah by inflicting widespread punishment.

“They thought that we would be divided,” he said.

Mr. Nasrallah painted the formation of a unity government as a step toward building a “greater Lebanon.’’ But he also was critical of the ruling March 14th coalition — itself named after the date of a giant rally mourning the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Harriri in 2005. And without naming him, Mr. Nasrallah appeared to belittle Walid Jumblatt, the leader of a Druze faction that has been bitterly opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon.

“It’s not about parties,’’ he said to the crowd. “It’s not a victory for a party or a group, it’s a victory for the people of Lebanon.”

 

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