BEIRUT — The powerful Syria-backed group Hezbollah on Sunday urged its followers to take to the streets in a massive protest against "foreign interference," abandoning its conciliatory tone during recent weeks of political unrest.
Hezbollah's demonstration, planned for Tuesday, could serve as a counterpunch to ongoing anti-Syria street protests that toppled Lebanon's government and forced Damascus to agree to recall its soldiers.
The group's call to supporters is a sign that the party feels threatened by a Syrian withdrawal. The same U.N. resolution that calls for the retreat of Syrian troops also demands that Lebanon's militias disarm, and Hezbollah opposes laying down its weapons.
A few days ago, Hezbollah officials declared that they could bring 500,000 people into the streets, but said they were refraining from mobilizing their followers because they feared inflaming tensions. Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, urged dialogue among the Lebanese factions and met with an envoy from opposition leader Walid Jumblatt.
On Sunday, Nasrallah accused anti-Syria demonstrators of acting as tools for the United States and Israel, and warned that a Syrian retreat was the first step in Lebanese attempts to make peace with the "Zionist enemy."
Hezbollah "rejects this international law because of its interference in our internal affairs and because all of its conditions are free, free, free services for the Israeli enemy," said Nasrallah, a cleric.
Nasrallah repeatedly stressed the need for peaceful demonstrations and warned that "chaos is forbidden." Still, there is fear that the dueling demonstrations could ignite sectarian tensions between Hezbollah's Shiite Muslim followers and the predominantly Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim demonstrators who have been rallying for an end to Syrian domination under the slogan "Independence 2005."
"What does it mean to disarm Hezbollah?" asked Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Afif. "It means disarming the only group that can defend the Lebanese people. It means opening Lebanon to Israel."
Hezbollah fears that a new Lebanese government might try to dissolve the powerful party or make peace with its arch-enemy, Israel. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for the spring, and could dramatically harden Lebanon's stance toward both Syria and Hezbollah.
"They can't really afford to be silent on this," said Nizar Hamzeh, a professor at the American University of Beirut whose specialty is Hezbollah. "If they continue being passive it's going to seem as though the whole country subscribes to dismantling the resistance."
Syrian President Bashar Assad was to meet in Damascus today with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud to approve a plan to move the estimated 16,000 Syrian soldiers to the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border. The troops are expected to move as early as today.
Syria describes the redeployment as a first step in a total withdrawal, but U.S. officials on Sunday continued to assail the phased retreat, saying the Syrians must quit Lebanon quickly and completely. The United States and France sponsored the United Nations resolution calling for a Syrian retreat and the disarmament of Lebanese militias.
U.S. officials and diplomats indicated Sunday that Washington might be flexible in its demand to ensure that a Syrian withdrawal did not create a power vacuum that resulted in instability.
Though President Bush has demanded Syria's complete and immediate withdrawal from Lebanon, White House counselor Dan Bartlett said: "If he [Assad] was clear on living up to those demands, those things could be worked out when we say 'immediate.' "
Hezbollah, Arabic for "Party of God," was born as an Islamic resistance movement dedicated to driving out Israeli soldiers who had invaded Lebanon in 1982. The group was widely credited in forcing the soldiers to retreat from Lebanon in 2000, making them the only Arab militia to have driven Israel from Arab land. Since then, Hezbollah fighters have remained on Lebanon's southern border with Israel, and have launched frequent attacks against Israelis in the disputed lands of Shebaa Farms, which Hezbollah claims belong to Lebanon.
A Hezbollah attack killed more than 200 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983, and the United States considers the group a terrorist organization. But its militia is only part of Hezbollah's operation. Hezbollah has 12 members in the Lebanese parliament and runs hospitals, orphanages and a satellite television station. Its Lebanese leaders answer directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and its Lebanese supporters are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands.
"You can't say Hezbollah controls this area," said Qasem Ayash, 33, a Hezbollah supporter. Ayash owns a sports shop in Hrat Hreik, a Hezbollah stronghold south of Beirut that is a landscape of rickety apartment blocks, tangles of telephone wires and banners painted with the shadowed faces of Hezbollah guerrillas killed fighting Israel.