BEIRUT, Lebanon – The leader of the militant Hezbollah party said Wednesday the group had no intention of surrendering its weapons despite President Bush’s call for it to disarm and integrate into the political mainstream.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah defended the Shiite Muslim group’s military role, but appeared to leave an opening for possible disarmament talks with other Lebanese groups.
“I am firm in keeping our arms because I believe the resistance is the best option for defending Lebanon against Israeli threats,” Nasrallah said on Hezbollah’s Al Manar satellite television station. “We will sit around a table with the other Lebanese sides and talk.”
Nasrallah’s remarks came in response to Bush’s comments, interpreted by many as a possible overture to Hezbollah, which the United States has classified as a terrorist organization.
Nasrallah said any discussion about disarming Hezbollah would take place only among Lebanese factions. A United Nations Security Council resolution sponsored by the United States and France last fall requires all Lebanese militias, including Hezbollah, to disarm.
Nasrallah has suggested labeling Hezbollah as a resistance movement, rather than a militia, so that it is not subject to the requirements of the resolution.
“Everything is open for dialogue in Lebanon,” Nasrallah said. “When we say we are one country and have one future, we are ready to talk about everything … without foreign interference.”
On Tuesday, Bush appeared to signal the U.S. government’s willingness to accept a political role for Hezbollah. “We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they’re not by laying down arms and not threatening peace,” he said.
Bush insisted Wednesday that his comments did not reflect a new U.S. policy, telling reporters at a news conference, “Hezbollah is on the terrorist list for a reason, and remains on the terrorist list for a reason. Our position’s not changed on Hezbollah.”
Nasrallah said his country remains threatened by Israel across Lebanon’s southern border, where the group is strongest. He said the United States was acting on Israel’s behalf in trying to get Hezbollah to give up its guns.
Hezbollah came into being as an Islamic resistance force to counter Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and is widely credited in Lebanon with having driven the Israelis out in 2000. Israel accuses Hezbollah of funneling aid from Iran to Palestinian militants who carry out bombings and other attacks against Israelis.
With hundreds of thousands of members – mostly Shiites – Hezbollah already is a political force, holding 12 seats in the Lebanese parliament with broad respect in Lebanon.
Hezbollah drew 500,000 people to a rally in downtown Beirut last week in support of Syria, which is under fire to leave Lebanon after a nearly 30-year occupation.
Hezbollah gets funding from Iran and Syria. Despite widespread calls for a Syrian withdrawal, many of the group’s followers continue to support Syria, the dominant political force in Lebanon since its troops entered in 1976 after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war.