BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday rejected calls to disarm and told a massive rally in the bomb-ravaged suburbs of Beirut that his militia still has more than 20,000 rockets after its 34-day war with Israel.
Nasrallah’s first public appearance since the end of the conflict drew hundreds of thousands of supporters to a confetti-sprinkled celebration of the Shiite Muslim militant group’s “divine victory.” In an emotional speech that ran long past an hour, Nasrallah refused to disarm his guerrillas under the weak government led by Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and warned international peacekeepers to keep their distance.
“They want to dissolve Hezbollah, but we’ve seen that no army in the world can do that. No army in the world will be able to remove the weapons from our grip, as long as we have the loyalty of the people,” Nasrallah said, as the crowd broke into deafening cheers and whistles.
The immense turnout at the rally, broadcast live on satellite channels throughout the Middle East, cemented the militant Shiite leader’s postwar status as one of the most powerful leaders in the region. He chided Sunni Arab regimes for failing to defend Lebanon and expressed gratitude to Shiite Iran for supporting Hezbollah.
Iran is a major supporter of Sunni and Shiite militants who oppose Western intervention in the Islamic world, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and in some cases Israel’s very existence. Many Arab leaders, mostly Sunnis already bitter over the rise of Shiite Islam in Iraq, view Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy that’s helping to spread Persian influence throughout the Middle East.
“How can you ask for equality when you won’t fight for Gaza or Jerusalem?” Nasrallah asked of fellow Arabs. “The Lebanese resistance left no excuse for Arab armies. The Arab armies, combined, are able to liberate the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem.”
Nasrallah stressed in his speech that Hezbollah is a homegrown Lebanese movement, but he defended the group’s close ties to the Shiite theocracy in Tehran.
“Delegates from all over the world come and tell us this was an Iranian war,” Nasrallah said. “We are proud of our relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We support them in leadership and people, and our history shows this.”
Mention of Iran elicited a smattering of boos among the cheers. Several Hezbollah supporters at the rally said they weren’t thrilled over Iran’s donations of cash, weapons and training to the Lebanese group, and said the relationship was born only out of necessity.
Nasrallah chose his words carefully in calling for a new Lebanese government. He said the Saniora administration is unable to protect, rebuild or unify Lebanon and said a more representative alternative must be found. Yet he was quick to defend the embattled Lebanese army, saying its relationship to the resistance is like “two dear brothers.”
“Our weapons are not for the inside and they’ll never be used for the inside,” Nasrallah said, addressing fears among Lebanon’s often-quarreling Sunni, Christian and Druze communities over the Shiite show of force. “These are Lebanese arms. These are the arms of the Muslims and the Christians, here to protect Lebanon.”