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Hezbollah rallies Lebanese to support Syria

Demonstration dwarfs protests demanding troop withdrawal

Huge crowds gathered outside the U.N. building in the center of Beirut.
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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Responding to three weeks of anti-Syria demonstrations, a massive, Hezbollah-organized rally filled a central Beirut square Tuesday to show support for Syria and reject a U.N. resolution that calls for the complete and immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Syria's ambassador to the United States said Tuesday that those troops will be withdrawn from Lebanon before the country's May elections, as President Bush called for Tuesday.

But Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah demanded the United States quit "meddling with our country.

"I want to tell Americans, do not interfere with our internal affairs," he said. "Let your ambassador relax in his embassy, and leave us alone."

Some news reports estimated Tuesday's crowd at 200,000 demonstrators. CNN's Beirut Bureau Chief Brent Sadler said it was difficult to give a figure but that the attendance was "impressive."

Nasrallah emphatically backed Monday's decision by the Syrian and Lebanese presidents to withdraw troops according to the 1989 Taif Accord, not U.N. Resolution 1559.

The Taif withdrawal begins with a pullback to the Bekaa Valley and later, after more discussions, into Syria. Resolution 1559 calls for the complete and immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim group listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, said about 30 political parties were represented in the demonstration. "We tell the whole world that we refuse the 1559 resolution," Nasrallah said.

Waving his arms in a gesture to the huge crowd, Nasrallah asked, "Isn't this Western democracy? The majority is rejecting Resolution 1559."

Resolution 1559, he said, favors Israel and does not address the larger problem of a comprehensive Mideast peace. The resolution calls for disarmament and disbanding of militias in Lebanon. Hezbollah is the sole remaining militia, left intact by the Taif accord.

That accord ended a long civil war in Lebanon -- in which various factions and even Western armies were involved, finally leaving Syrian troops in the country to help stabilize it. About 14,000 Syrian forces remain after some withdrawals over the years.

But after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, a renewed call emerged -- with increased international pressure, particularly from the United States -- for not only the departure of Syria's troops, but also an end to its perceived participation in Lebanese politics.

Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States, told CNN the pullout sets a "good example" for a withdrawal of occupation forces from other regions -- including Israeli forces who occupy Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, which Israel took from Syria in 1967.

"Let me first thank President Bush for his concern about Lebanon and the fair and free elections that will happen in May," Moustapha said. "Now President Bush can focus his attention on the really terrible occupation of the Palestinian territories and the occupation of Syrian territories and Lebanese territories by Israel."

But Washington called Monday's pullback agreement between Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Syrian President Bashar Assad "a half measure that does not go far enough," and on Tuesday Bush called for Syria's withdrawal to be complete before Lebanese elections.

"The world community, including Russia and Germany and France and Saudi Arabia and the United States, has presented the Syrian government with one of those choices: to end its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon or become even more isolated from the world," he said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. (Full story)

To the Lebanese opposition and its almost daily demonstrations after Hariri's killing, Bush said that "all the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience."

Although the opposition rallies drew tens of thousands of people, Tuesday's Hezbollah-sponsored rally dwarfed them, and Nasrallah rejected Bush's assessment of Lebanon, saying his "calculations are wrong."

"I want to ask our partners in our country -- or who are looking at you from outside -- are all these masses mere puppets?" Nasrallah said. "Are all these masses agents of the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence forces?"

The Hezbollah leader called for immediate parliamentary consultations to choose a prime minister to form a "national unity government" or, barring that, a face-to-face dialogue with opposition leaders that could lead to such a consensus government.

Walid Jumblatt, an opposition leader and Druse member of the Lebanese parliament, said the opposition wants an "independent Lebanon, a democratic Lebanon, with a good relationship with Syria."

"It's necessary to have a dialogue with Hezbollah, and we wish they would join us, our ranks, in building up the independence of Lebanon," he said from Berlin, where he was meeting with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. "Today they have a peaceful demonstration under the Lebanese flag, which is good. I hope they will join us for the future of Lebanon, independent Lebanon."

As the demonstration began, reports came from Syrian camps that the pullback had begun, but CNN has not yet confirmed those reports.

CNN's Brent Sadler contributed to this report

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