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.

“We respect the people of Iran and the country of Iran for always supporting us,” said Abu Yusuf Imad, 45, whose young son carried a large Iranian flag at the rally. “The others can think about this what they want, but we are the owners of the territory. It was our buildings destroyed, our land occupied and there is no government here to defend against anything.”

“These words of Hassan Nasrallah show us this was an Iranian-American war,” said Khalil Basha, 30, a merchant. “It was a proxy war. Nasrallah thinks differently from the Iranians, but if he doesn’t work with Iran for financial and military support, then who can he work with?”

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.”

Members of the Lebanese government expressed exasperation over Nasrallah’s remarks, saying it wasn’t plausible for the Saniora administration to remake itself.

“How can we form a national unity government when we already have an established presence with important tasks at hand: the task of guarding the border and reconstruction,” Elias Zogby, a pro-government Christian politician, told al Jazeera television after the rally. “Are we to stop and form a new government, a process that would take at least three months, while the country’s in a transitional period?”

Nasrallah assumed a variety of roles before the crowd. He spoke as a nationalist, promising Lebanon’s fractious sects that his victory was theirs. He spoke as an Arab, urging support for Palestinians and Iraqis. He spoke as an international player, lavishing praise on Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez, and condemning U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But Nasrallah’s most heartfelt words were reserved for the Shiites, who bore the brunt of the devastating Israeli bombing campaign provoked by Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12. Israeli air strikes ripped through villages along the border with the Jewish state, flattened Beirut’s southern suburbs and destroyed airport runways, bridges and other infrastructure.

More than 1,000 Lebanese, most of them civilians, died in the bombings. Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into northern Israel during the war and killed 157 Israelis, most of them soldiers. Fighting displaced nearly 1 million Lebanese and wiped out thousands of homes and businesses.

“Bless your martyrs and the families of your martyrs. Bless your orphans, your broken homes, your lost fortunes,” Nasrallah said. “Today, we celebrate a divine victory, a strategic and historic victory. Nobody would imagine that a few thousand of your people, your resistance, stood up for days in front of the strongest army in the region.”

The words resonated with Shiite families, many of whom walked or hitched rides from southern villages to attend the rally. Thousands waved the yellow banners of Hezbollah or hoisted placards that read, “Here we are, Nasrallah.” Celebratory gunfire crackled throughout the suburbs.

“He represents our views as if he’s speaking from our own hearts. We feel he’s one of us, somebody we know,” said Ferial Faqih, a secular Shiite in a midriff-baring top.

Faten Mansour, a 25-year-old Shiite mother who’d draped a Hezbollah flag over her black chador, said she brought her three young children to see Nasrallah and to teach them “to defend our country and to walk in the footsteps of the resistance.”

Mahdi Allam, 23, a pizza chef whose uncle and best friend were Hezbollah guerrillas who died in battle, waved a gigantic yellow flag long after the crowd had left the rally.

“The most important thing is what he didn’t say: Go give your lives for the lands that still aren’t free. I was waiting for it, ready, and so were all my friends,” Allam said. “But he showed us he’s a grounded man who does things slowly and with reason.”

The rally had been timed to coincide with the withdrawal of the last Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, but Israeli officials said earlier this week that the pullout would take longer than expected.

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LEBANON

AP-NY-09-22-06 2045EDT

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