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Hizbollah tells Lebanese to cool anti-Syria line
Updated: 2005-02-19 22:48

Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Saturday that popular agitation against Syria's grip on Lebanon after the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri could plunge the country back into civil war.

Opposition leaders are urging Lebanese to join a peaceful "independence uprising" to free their country from Syria's military and political dominance, intensifying a war of words after Hariri's assassination in a huge bomb blast Monday.

"God forbid, if the roof collapses, it collapses on all of us," Nasrallah told tens of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims gathered for Ashura, the most solemn event in their calendar.

"Today we are responsible for a nation that came out of the civil war ... but we face acute problems, especially this year and in the past few months," the black-turbaned cleric declared. "As Lebanese, we have no choice for remedying our crises and problems except to discuss and meet, even if we are angry and tense," he said. "We must not repeat the mistakes of the past."

Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, is now a formidable Lebanese political party as well as an anti-Israel guerrilla force that still controls much of south Lebanon since helping end a 22-year Israeli occupation in May 2000.

The death of Hariri, a wealthy Sunni Muslim businessman, sparked an outpouring of public grief mixed with anger against Syria, instinctively held responsible by many Lebanese.

The anti-Syrian sentiments now uniting many of Lebanon's Christians, Druze and Sunnis have not been voiced by Shi'ite leaders counted among the most loyal allies of Damascus. Shi'ites form the country's biggest religious community.

Hizbollah, the only militia to retain its guns openly since the civil war ended, could come under intense pressure to disarm, in line with United Nations demands, if Syria left.

Nasrallah called for a speedy investigation into Hariri's killing, but rejected international involvement in Lebanon.


The United States, which this week recalled its ambassador from Damascus in response to the bombing, told Syria Friday to cooperate in the investigation or face further sanctions.

Washington imposed some economic sanctions in May, including a ban on U.S. exports to Syria other than food and medicine.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Syria could avoid further punishment by changing its policies. "We are not trying to isolate Syria, what we are trying to do is to get Syria to engage in more responsible behavior," she said.

The United States has not blamed Syria for Hariri's assassination and Damascus has denied involvement.

Washington has previously told Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops from its tiny neighbor, crack down on Iraqi insurgents and stop backing Hizbollah and Palestinian militant groups.

The Beirut government has rejected U.S. and French calls for an international inquiry into Hariri's killing, but the United Nations has asked an Irish policeman to lead a U.N. team to report on its "circumstances, causes and consequences."

Deputy police commissioner Peter Fitzgerald is expected to leave for Beirut in the next few days, a U.N. spokesman said.

The Bush administration wants Security Council members to consider measures that could be taken against Hariri's killers but it was unclear how many council members would agree.

In September, France and the United States engineered a council resolution demanding Syrian troops get out of Lebanon. That measure, resolution 1559, squeaked through 9-0, the minimum number of votes required, with six abstentions.

Nasrallah attacked the resolution as an Israeli-inspired measure that would not bring Lebanon sovereignty, freedom and independence, as some Lebanese imagined.

"There is another viewpoint that says this resolution will ruin the country and make it hostage to international powers and enemy powers, specifically Israel," he said. "The demands made in 1559 are entirely Israeli demands."

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